Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 11 October 2007

Taxis Bill: Disability Action

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

11 October 2007

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

Witnesses:
Kevin Doherty ) Disability Action 
Ms Adele Watters ) 
Mr John McMullan ) Department of the Environment 
Mr Stephen Spratt ) 
Mr John Martin )

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
There was no written submission from Disability Action, but members may recall that at our meeting on 27 September, we agreed that it was important that the Committee hear an oral brief from a Disability Action representative. I also advise members that unless the Committee receives and accepts any late requests, today is our last day for oral evidence.

Mr Doherty, you are very welcome. Our proceedings are informal; you will have 10 or 15 minutes to explain your case and any views you may have on the Taxis Bill. Members will then ask questions seeking further detail or clarity.

Mr Kevin Doherty (Disability Action):
Thank you. Our chief executive, Monica Wilson, sends her apologies. I am here to present evidence on behalf of Disability Action, which is a pan-disability organisation that works to create an inclusive Northern Ireland with, and for, people with disabilities. There are currently more than 330,000 people in Northern Ireland with a declared disability. The most recent census survey in Northern Ireland has identified certain barriers to social and economic inclusion for people with disabilities, and transport is one of those barriers. Disability Action urges the Committee to examine the results of that survey as part of any inclusive strategy for transport in Northern Ireland.

Disabled people’s experiences of using taxis are very mixed. The vast majority of taxis are private, and can be used by some with mobility impairments, but are often difficult for wheelchair users in particular.

Disability Action represents 180 different disability organisations throughout Northern Ireland, and the evidence I am giving today is of specific examples that have been given to us. The issues faced by disabled people using taxis that are private include: extra charges for carrying luggage; extra charges for waiting the few extra minutes that a disabled person may need to get into the taxi; taxi drivers complaining that walking aids have scraped paintwork on cars; refusal of some drivers to move seats to give extra leg room; difficulty with storage of mobility enhancements, such as crutches; and extra charges for guide dogs for the blind, or, as is more often the case in Northern Ireland, refusal to transport them.

For wheelchair users who can transfer into a private car issues include: refusal to allow the wheelchair user to put their chair as close as possible to the car to facilitate ease of transfer in case of damage; extra charges for waiting; extra charges for storing the wheelchair — I will give examples of that later; rough handling, and subsequent damage to wheelchairs, which is an ongoing issue that has been highlighted to us; refusal to allow the wheelchair user to travel by themselves by some companies who insist that they have an escort; and the driver’s attitude, language and lack of experience in transporting disabled people can make the journey uncomfortable.

Comfort and safety are key issues with self-styled accessible transport, although there are a small number of examples of good practice in transporting wheelchair users with knowledge, sensitivity and confidence, but they involve a select number of drivers who specialise in services for disabled people. Disability Action urges that those services should be used as the benchmark for good practice.

Examples that are reported to Disability Action include; lack of knowledge on the use of ramps; wheelchair users not being restrained; being forced to travel facing sideways, or sometimes, the wrong way; lack of driver training and knowledge of effects of impairment, including poor balance; and inability to stay in the chair due to the driver’s poor braking or turning.

There are key concerns over the consistency of service, safety and comfort for the disabled person. However, the key significant issue that is often reported to Disability Action is the exorbitant fares imposed on disabled people. I will give two specific examples: a return journey from Lisburn Road in Belfast to Carrickfergus, where there was a ten-minute wait, resulted in a fare of £86, and a return journey of one mile in County Derry with a 20 minute wait was £70. Many disabled people find it difficult, and are afraid to challenge, such discriminatory practice, and pay the fare for a quiet life. In addition, deaf and blind people experience the barriers of lack of accessibility and information, and poor attitude of dispatch and driving staff.

In effect, disabled people often rely on taxis as their only means of mobility, but attitudes, safety, charging, inaccessibility of information, and lack of communication make journeys dangerous, uncomfortable and overly expensive.

The Taxis Bill must secure significant changes for the 20% of Northern Ireland’s population who are disabled.

I recommend that several clauses of the Taxis Bill be amended. Clause 2(5) should include a reference to the number, or percentage, of taxis in each taxi fleet that should reach an agreed level of accessibility. Clause 3(2) should contain the provision that licensed operators be required to have a designated SMS number, text phone or other device that enables deaf people to access the booking system. I also suggest that clause 3(9) recommends accessible methods through which disabled users may make complaints to the licensed operators, for instance, a person with a learning disability may wish to make an oral complaint and a deaf person may wish to communicate his or her complaint by text. Clause 13(3)(a)(ii) should include accessibility as a condition for the taxi to be granted a taxi licence, and we ask that the exorbitant fares imposed on disabled people be challenged by clause 16(1)(b). With regard to clause 16(3), the highest penalties should be imposed for overcharging. Disability Action urges the comprehensive enforcement of clause 20(2)(c). If strong enforcement measures are not in place, the situation will become even more difficult for people with a disability.

With regard to clauses 20(2)(h) and 20(2)(j), we seek assurances that accessibility will be the key elements of a future DOE regulation. Even though clause 50 is another enabling clause, the Department recommends that disability and equality training is made mandatory. That would eliminate the lack of disability knowledge that some taxi drivers have — as I mentioned earlier. A further clause should be added regarding the carriage of assisting animals to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of Great Britain.

We welcome the introduction of the Taxis Bill, however the overall needs and basic rights of disabled people must be taken into account at the Bill’s Committee Stage. This is an opportunity for the Department of the Environment and the Committee to set the benchmark that future Bills will have to reach if society is to be made more inclusive for people with disabilities.

Mr I McCrea:
Thank you for your evidence, Kevin. It is always important to hear from someone who is speaking on behalf of people with disabilities and who wants to ensure that the needs of disabled people are catered for. It is also important that the legislation caters for disabled people. At the beginning of your evidence, you talked about the extra charges faced by disabled people — regardless of their disability. Have you evidence to show the differences in charges imposed by public-hire and private-hire taxis?

Mr K Doherty:
Taxi firms in small rural villages, for example, are unlikely to have accessible vehicles. Therefore disabled users have to get taxis from firms in bigger places, such as Belfast, Derry and Newry, which have accessible transport, and pay exorbitant fares for taxis to travel to the individuals. However, the problem would be eliminated if all licensed operators were to have some accessible vehicles — as recommended in my proposed amendment to clause 2(5).

Mr Ford:
Thank you for your evidence. I hope that you will send the Committee a written list of your suggested amendments to the clauses because I did not have time to note them all.

Mr K Doherty:
I will.

Mr Ford:
Can drivers’ attitudes and ignorance be improved through regular training? Should such issues be part of the licensing procedure? How should they be dealt with?

Mr K Doherty:
It is a training issue. Working with and being with people who have disabilities often requires a lot of understanding of the disability.

Training should be mandatory across public transport in general, not simply for taxi drivers. There should be mandatory disability and equality awareness training so that those in the transport industry are aware of issues that may face those with a disability, because often such needs are inadvertently not recognised.

Mr Ford:
Last week, a driver who has the disability of reading and writing with difficulty gave evidence. Have you discussed the significant requirements for record-keeping with any of the drivers who may be similarly affected?

Mr K Doherty:
The taxi drivers themselves?

Mr Ford:
Yes, or are you solely concerned with issues relating to passengers?

Mr K Doherty:
Currently, in regard to the Bill we are solely concerned with issues related to passengers.

Mr Ford:
In a sense, a number of points that you highlighted about the legislation may be regarded as beefing up the existing Bill, which is, as you have said, overwhelmingly an enabling Bill. Have you had any discussions with departmental officials about that? It appears that you are proposing a fundamental change to the concept of the Bill. You are seeking to have issues that would normally be regulated included in the Bill.

Mr K Doherty:
We are open to discussion on the issues.

Mr Ford:
Have discussed them yet?

Mr K Doherty:
Not at this stage.

Mr Weir:
The Department has provided the Committee with a list of potential regulatory amendments. Certain witnesses, including Mr Doherty, have given us a list of specific amendments. It would be useful if a full list of amendments were drawn up relatively soon. Also, it would be useful to have the Department’s opinion on the workability of those amendments. Some issues raised by Mr Doherty could be dealt with through amendments, some through regulations, and others through obtaining assurances. The Committee could break that information down for the Department and seek confirmation that there would be amendments or satisfactory regulations put in place. It may be helpful to Mr Doherty’s organisation to get written responses from the Department to confirm, for example, that certain clauses will be enforceable in certain situations. The issue of amendments is separate, but it would be helpful to get written assurances and clarification from the Department on the regulations. That is a role that the Committee could play.

The Committee Clerk:
A lot of work is going into producing a single document that will break down the legislation, by clause, to outline the key issues. That work will be ongoing until next week. The document will include suggested amendments to clauses and subsections in the Bill. The Department is working hard to put its comments in a third column, so that the information that members need will be contained within a single document.

Mr Weir:
The potential impact and merit of suggested amendments will vary. On the one hand, everyone will agree that some suggestions make common sense while, on the other hand, a proposal by an individual taxi driver, for example, could amount to a pet theory that no one else agrees with. It will be important for the Committee to make distinctions between suggested amendments; and, therefore, unless the Department comments on workability, it will be difficult for the Committee to make value judgements on what may be sensible improvements to the Bill and what may constitute pet theories that will not work in practice.

It was not really a question; I was just seeking clarification.

The Committee Clerk:
The Bill Clerk, Kevin Shiels, is here today. He will explain the process of clause-by-clause scrutiny to members. I hope that the document that we are going to use will answer all of the questions that members may have. The Committee will examine the clauses, the issues that were raised during oral and written evidence, and the Department’s responses. There will also be an opportunity to discuss the responses with the departmental officials. The document is very large; we have tried to provide members with all the evidence as best we can.

Mr Ford:
I have one further question. Mr Doherty highlighted clause 2(5) and the issue of the percentage of taxis that should be disabled-friendly. Does Disability Action have a figure in mind?

Mr K Doherty:
It is difficult to say; in some rural communities there may only be two taxis. I could not say, for example, that 50% of the Value Cabs fleet in Belfast should comprise disabled-friendly vehicles. The question is whether opportunities exist for disabled people to avail of accessible taxis.

Mr Ford:
I suspect that when we come to the regulations we may have to set a figure.

The Chairperson:
Mr Doherty, thank you for coming along and giving of your time.

We shall now move on to the proposed amendments. We are going to be briefed by Adele Watters and John McMullan from the Department of the Environment. I have been advised that the proposed amendments are minor and do not involve any policy changes. Adele and John will probably clarify that for us.

Members have been provided with a copy of the proposed amendments.

Mr John McMullan (Department of the Environment):
Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee on the Department’s proposed amendments to the Taxis Bill. Although it may appear slightly odd that the Department wishes to propose amendments so soon, the tight drafting deadlines that were imposed, initially for Westminster and then for the Assembly, allowed our lawyers only the summer recess to reflect on the legislation. It is probably inevitable that when lawyers look at draft legislation they will always find something that they want to change.

We have described the proposed amendments as minor drafting improvements. No policy changes are being suggested in any of the amendments, save one or two, and even then the overall integrity of the Bill will not be greatly affected. The amendments iron out certain ambiguities and uncertainties in the legislation. Although the changes may look small or even insignificant, they are the sorts of issues that can come back to haunt us in years to come, and the Department invariably ends up in Court trying to defend such legislation.

At the beginning of the oral evidence session, Mr Chairperson, you stated that the Committee was determined to get the legislation right. We share that objective, and the amendments will assist us in that regard.

To understand the proposed amendments fully, it will be important to read the clauses; identify the offending wording; examine the replacement wording, and try to read the whole thing afresh as an amended version. The process is rather tedious, but I hope that I can get through the proposals without being too legalistic. If the Committee requires more detail, I am happy too discuss individual amendments. The Chairperson mentioned the list of proposed amendments, which has been provided to members, and I propose to go through those individually.

The first amendment is to clause 6, which deals with compliance with a departmental taxi-sharing scheme. The clause contains a catch-all provision for the Department — under subsection (1)(c) — when making legislation, to create taxi-sharing schemes.

Clause 6(1)(c) states that the Department shall:

“include such provision, or provision of such description, as may be specified in the scheme for the purposes of this paragraph.”

That is a rather clumsy way of saying that the Department shall include such other provisions as it thinks fit. The amendment will make that clear: it will tighten up the initial draft.

Clause 6(3) states that:

“The Department may vary any scheme made by it under this section.”

That is the same as saying that the Department can change subordinate legislation, which goes without saying as the Interpretation Act ( Northern Ireland) 1954 enables all Departments to change subordinate legislation. Sometimes, stating something in legislation that is unnecessary can lead to legal arguments that it must mean something different. In this case, it does not mean anything different from what is in the Interpretation Act ( Northern Ireland) 1954, therefore, the safest approach is to omit clause 6(3) altogether. That is what is being proposed.

The next amendment is to clause 10, which refers to functions in relation to operator’s licence authorising separate fares. This refers to taxi-operators who wish to provide a bus-type service. At present, they must obtain a Roads Service licence, which is basically a bus licence. They must also satisfy fairly rigorous criteria set out in the Transport Act ( Northern Ireland) 1967.

The Taxis Bill means that it will be no longer necessary for them to obtain such a licence; they will get all their licensing under the Taxis Bill. We have imported the same criteria from the Transport Act ( Northern Ireland) 1967 into the Bill. Our intention is that someone who holds a Roads Service licence will not need to meet all the criteria again — there is no point in making someone jump through the same hoops twice.

Inadvertently, we exempted them from only one criterion, which was the suitability of routes. This amendment will restore the policy intention that those drivers who want to operate a bus-type service are exempt from all of the various conditions in clause 10. We have also included additional power to enable the Department to make further exemptions in regulations if it is thought to be necessary.

The next amendment is to clause 27(3), which outlines the time during which a licence will be suspended or curtailed. The amendment simply removes the reference to “curtailment”. The reason for that is that clause 26(4) already covers curtailment. Therefore, the amendment is not only removing duplication, there was actually a contradiction between the two clauses. Clause 27(3), therefore, will be left as the clause that deals solely with suspension.

The next amendment is to clause 37, which refers to powers of entry. The legislation states that:

“an authorised officer or a constable may … inspect those premises and other item”.

However, clause 37(8) states that the powers of seizure extend to:

“any equipment or other items”.

Equipment had not been mentioned when the powers of inspection were referred to. Therefore, the amendment will ensure consistency in that it will make it possible to also inspect equipment.

Clause 42 refers to dealing with taxi touts. It provides an exemption to the offence of touting if it is permitted in regulations made under clause 20(2)(c). Clause 20(2)(c) refers to regulations dealing with taxi marshals. Taxi marshals, by their nature, will be touting; they will be trying to get people into taxis in order to clear the streets. Therefore, it is right that they should be exempt.

We also felt that there may be other situations and regulations where someone could be exempt. For example, we provide regulation powers for advertising. Therefore, in clause 42(3) we want to leave out “20(2)(c)” and insert “20.” If something is legally permitted, it should not be an offence under taxi touting.

Mr T Clarke:
Could I get an explanation of that amendment? Can it be explained from the start again?

Mr McMullan:
The Bill makes it an offence for someone to be touting for a taxi.

Mr T Clarke:
What do you mean when you refer to “touting”?

Mr McMullan:
I mean someone shouting for business on the street — letting people know that a taxi is available. That is not permissible at the moment, and it is not permissible in the Taxis Bill. We are including an exemption in the clause for taxi marshals. In future years, if they are brought in, they will be regulated by the Department, and their role will be to get people into taxis.

Mr Weir:
At present, are there any taxi marshals, or is that a role that will be introduced in the future if the legislation is adopted?

Mr McMullan:
There are currently no taxi marshals. The proposal is to introduce them in the future.

Mr Weir:
Does the law on touting also include taxi drivers? Presumably, they are not allowed to roll down their window and shout that their taxi is available. If they did, would they be guilty of an offence?

Mr McMullan:
Yes, that is correct.

Mr T Clarke:
There is a problem with the wording of the Bill. Surely, it should make it clear that marshals are allowed to solicit taxis. The Bill appears to state that taxi drivers can solicit business. Who is to deem whether a taxi driver is doing that correctly or incorrectly? The wording is a bit loose.

Mr McMullan:
If a taxi driver were to do that, he would be committing an offence.

Mr T Clarke:
That is not what the Bill says.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 42(1) of the Taxis Bill states that:

“a person who solicits any person to be carried for hire or reward in a taxi is guilty of an offence.”

Mr T Clarke:
Yes, but we are talking about clause 42?

Ms Watters:
Yes. Clause 42, subsection 1.

Mr McMullan:
The word “person” covers taxi drivers.

Ms Watters:
The Bill intends to recognise the fact that certain situations in which someone solicits persons to be carried for hire or reward would be permissible. Mr McMullan’s point is that, in focusing on ensuring that that the Bill does not criminalise taxi marshals, we lost sight of our policy aim, which was to ensure that advertising on a taxi or an advertising hoarding were permitted. Potentially, advertising could be regarded as soliciting also.

The Chairperson:
Clause 20(2)(c) states:

“enforcing order at and regulating the use of places referred to in paragraph (a)”.

What does it mean by “places”?

Ms Watters:
The word “places” means taxi ranks.

The Chairperson:
The Committee has heard that there are not enough taxi ranks. When the Bill refers to “enforcing order”, it does not refer specifically to taxi marshals. Potentially, anyone could solicit a taxi and claim that they were enforcing order.

Mr McMullan:
They could only claim that if the Department makes regulations to allow them to do so. The regulations will stipulate who will be legally entitled to enforce order.

The Chairperson:
Those enforcers of order will regulate and tout legally. How will it be ensured that they are not touting on behalf of a company or a person?

Mr McMullan:
The Department will regulate for that. It may be that departmental marshals are appointed and that that they will be only people allowed to enforce order.

Ms Watters:
Alternatively, representatives from a local council might carry out that role. Their training, type of uniform and activities would be tightly regulated. Regulating the enforcement of order at ranks means that that activity can be controlled. Currently, people may try to enforce order by claiming to be a taxi marshals, although were they to do that, they would be at risk of breaking the law on touting.

The Chairperson:
Will you explain what taxi marshals would do? I am intrigued by the notion of how their role would work in practice, particularly if the number of taxi ranks is limited. Would taxi marshals be designated to work from specific taxi ranks?

Ms Watters:
In many British cities, queues generally develop at taxi ranks around closing time, when the city is busy and people are leaving — it is a night-time phenomenon. Many of those people have taken alcohol, which can result in allegations of queue-jumping. Taxi marshals, who are appointed by the taxi-licensing authority, the local council, or a combination of both, are on the scene, wearing high-visibility gear. Part of their role will be to ensure that the queue is orderly and that people get taxis as quickly as they become available. That makes it possible to tackle issues such as a driver refusing to take someone to Bangor unless he is paid £40. The aim will be to match people with available taxis as efficiently as possible.

The Chairperson:
If you wish to build some elbow room into the legislation in order to introduce marshals in the future, what provisions would give them the necessary authority, and what powers would you conceive of them having? In addition, for the issues you raised, such as overcharging, would it be necessary to introduce a two-tier approach requiring enforcement officials — albeit reduced by 20% — as well as marshals, and would that result in the replication of, or an overlap in, work?

Ms Watters:
We envisage distinct roles for both jobs. The marshal’s role would be to keep order at the rank, match passengers to taxis and help to clear the town at night. Enforcement officers would enforce the regulations. To have enforcement officers marshalling at taxi ranks would not be a good use of that resource.

The Chairperson:
I am intrigued. Perhaps you did not anticipate this question; however, if you build-in provisions for marshals and, in the future, they are dealing with issues such as keeping order or overcharging, which someone else is empowered to do, would there not be an overlap in duties, and what potential legal role — other than simply herding people into taxis in order to keep them moving — do you envisage for those marshals? Why should the concept of such a role be introduced at this stage if they would not be empowered to do anything?

A further element is that if marshals are employed by councils, as you said, some people might consider that to be an attempt by the Department to offload some of its responsibilities onto the local authorities — particularly in light of the oncoming review of public administration.

Ms Watters:
I do not envisage the marshals having any enforcement role. For potential issues, such as overcharging, the presence of marshals would be a deterrent. If a driver arrives at the rank and the next customer is waiting, the inference is that they will take that customer. The issue of refusing to take them unless they pay £40 will not arise. The idea is that the most a driver could charge would be the maximum fare. The marshal’s role would be to act as a deterrent, rather than one of enforcement.

The Chairperson:
But, if he cannot do anything about it —

Mr T Clarke:
As soon as the industry gets to know that that marshal cannot do anything, he will be as useless as a sleeping policeman.

The Chairperson:
They will just laugh at him.

Ms Watters:
The marshal may not be able to do anything at the time. However, information could be passed to the Department if specific companies refuse to carry customers because they are not prepared to pay more than the maximum fare or if a particular pattern of behaviour being is displayed at taxi ranks. There are ways to tackle such issues without giving enforcement powers to marshals.

Mr McMullan:
We do not envisage marshals being enforcement officers. They would be used more in taxi-sharing schemes — to match people to taxis that are going to particular areas. They would not have a specific enforcement role. They would keep order at the ranks. They would not enforce licensing or taxi regulations.

Mr T Clarke: 
However, you are portraying the marshals as having an enforcement role by saying that they would be at taxi ranks to deter certain acts from taking place. If that is the case, then there must be a perception that they have power to act. Once the industry knows that marshals have no power to act, they will be useless. Either they are at taxi ranks to get people into taxis and clear the streets, or they are there with an enforcement role. It has to be clear. If they have such a role, it must be clearly defined.

Ms Watters:
Their role will be clearly defined in regulations.

Mr T Clarke: 
We started by talking about touting and what the marshals can and cannot do. I do not think that the proposed amendment makes that clear.

In other Committees, we are trying to make things easier for organisations. I must admit that I am at pains to understand this provision, and taxi drivers will have difficulty in understanding it too. There will be problems if this is left the way it is.

The case is clear-cut: either taxi drivers are permitted to tout for business or they are not. If they are allowed, that should be clearly defined. Perhaps marshals should be allowed to tout for business at a taxi rank, but not drivers.

The Chairperson:
Clause 42(1) states that:

“a person who solicits any person to be carried for hire or reward in as taxi is guilty of an offence.”

The issue is: if that person is guilty of an offence and he is observed by a marshal, the marshal should be able to so something about it. That is the problem.

Mr T Clarke: 
However, the effect of the amendment is to make it clear that a person may be exempt from a taxi touting offence if it is permitted in regulations made under clause 20.

The Chairperson:
That is under clause 20(2)(c):

“enforcing order at and regulating the use of places referred to in paragraph (a)”.

That is where the concept of the marshals comes from.

Peter, you have been trying to get in for a while.

Mr Weir:
I will perhaps add to the confusion.

I agree with Trevor and with the Chairman. More confusion is being caused than clarity given. I do not know why this amendment has come from legislative counsel, saying that clause 42 should include all regulations made under the whole of clause 20 rather than those made under paragraph 20(2)(c).

 

A wide range of potential regulations could be made under subsection 20(2) as a whole or under clause 20 as a whole. Why does the Department want to address the issue of marshals in any provision other than paragraph 20(2)(c)? It strikes me that that paragraph is directly relevant; the others are not. I cannot envisage any set of circumstances in which the Department would want to make regulations for marshals in any other part of the Bill.

Mr McMullan:
I agree. Marshals are covered under paragraph 20(2)(c). The other one we thought of was —

Mr Weir:
If marshals are covered under paragraph 20(2)(c), then none of the other paragraphs in subsection 20(2) are relevant to marshals. Why change from a specific reference to paragraph 20(2)(c) to clause 20 as a whole?

Mr McMullan:
The other one we thought might be caught was clause 20(2)(l), which relates to advertising. There could be an argument that someone advertising is actually soliciting for business.

Ms Watters:
Mr McMullan is suggesting that a more appropriate amendment, rather than reference to regulations in the whole of clause 20, should be to paragraphs 20(2)(c) and 20(2)(l).

Mr Weir:
If it were paragraphs (c) and (l) there might be a little more logic to it. This might be pedantic of me, but I am not sure that regulations for advertising would be confused with touting for business. I do not think anyone would confuse the two: they are different. There remains, however, the separate point raised by the Chairman and Mr T Clarke, which is that people might find the wording that we now have confusing. It might create a situation where we have marshals who are virtually powerless.

Members must give a great deal of thought to that in order to ensure that we get it right. I did not see the point of opening the provision out from paragraph 20(2)(c) because that does not add anything.

Mr McMullan:
It may be useful for members to ask questions as I go along, rather than leaving them all to the end.

Clause 53 is a technical savings provision for the existing taxi by-laws. The Taxis Bill will disapply the power under which a plethora of taxi by-laws were made. Therefore, the taxi by-laws must be underpinned by legislation to ensure that they will continue to be in force until such times as regulations replace them. Our amendment simply states that taxi by-laws will be treated as though they had been made under provisions in the Bill.

Mr Weir:
May I have a point of clarification on taxi by-laws, because I do not know a great deal about them? Do those by-laws cover all of Northern Ireland or to specific areas?

Mr McMullan:
Generally, they relate to taxi ranks, and they differ from one local council area to another.

Mr Weir:
Therefore, the by-law for taxis in Fermanagh may differ, in part, from the one that applies in Magherafelt?

Mr McMullan:
Yes.

Clause 55 is the interpretation clause to which we propose to add a definition of the word “notice” to clarify that we mean notice in writing. If a driver’s licence is to be revoked, suspended or curtailed, the Department must give “notice”. As the driver’s rights flow from that notice, it is an important legal document — from date of receipt, a driver has 21 days to appeal before the decision takes effect.

There is a small amendment to clause 57, which the commencement clause. It is normal drafting practice for commencement and interpretation provisions to come into effect immediately, or shortly after, a Bill receives Royal Assent. We missed that point when the Order was converted into a Bill for the Assembly. Therefore, as things stand, the clause is potentially embarrassing to the Department because without the power to make commencement orders, even if we get the legislation right, we may not be able to act. It is one of those critical amendments I mentioned earlier, and we definitely want it to be included.

Mr Weir:
The proposed amendment will exempt four sections. Does the wording of the amendment have a bearing on when those four sections will come into effect?

Mr McMullan:
Yes, the amendment means that those four sections will come into effect when the Bill is granted Royal Assent — and every other section will come into effect on such day, or days, as the Department may by order appoint.

Mr Weir:Presumably it is standard practice that if no provision is made for a section to come into effect on a named day, it comes into effect immediately?

Mr McMullan:
Yes.

Schedule 2 to the Bill details minor and consequential amendments. Paragraph 2 refers to Article 66A(1) of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981, which relates to car-sharing arrangements. This amendment clarifies that the definition of the word “taxi” will be as defined in the Taxis Bill. When cross-referencing legislation, it is important to ensure that a wrong definition is not referenced: for example that the definition of taxi is not taken from the 1981 Order.

We are adding one more repeal in schedule 3 of the Bill. This is a provision from the Road Traffic (Amendment) ( Northern Ireland) Order 1991, which deals with taxi licences. That provision is no longer needed, because the taxi licence will be covered in the Taxis Bill. It is a repeal that was not spotted first time round.

There is then a run of amendments relating to all references to offences in the body of the Bill. We have referred to the mode of trial and the penalty for each offence in the body of the Bill. However, the drafting convention for road traffic legislation is that the penalties are set out in schedule and should be put into a road traffic offenders Order. It is handy for practitioners to know that all the road traffic offences and penalties are listed in that Order. We have done both in the draft: we have set it out in schedule 1, and we have also set it out in the body of the Bill.

On several occasions, the Bill refers to a person who is:

“guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3”,

or whatever. However, it is unnecessary to state that wording in the body of the Bill when it is also at schedule 1. While the duplication is not wrong, the amendment will make the Bill consistent with all other road traffic legislation.

The final amendment is a consequential amendment to section 37A of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and relates to the carrying of assistance dogs in private-hire vehicles. The concept of private-hire vehicles is no longer in the Taxis Bill and, therefore, the terminology has to be changed to cover the new legislation that will be introduced.

The previous witness mentioned assistance dogs. The Department has already drafted regulations under section 37, and the SL1 will be coming to the Committee in the next couple of weeks, which will basically say that no one can charge to take an assistance dog in a private-hire taxi.

Mr T Clarke:
Can drivers refuse to do that?

Mr McMullan:
No.

Mr T Clarke:
Do the regulations deal with refusing to carry an assistance dog as opposed to charging?

Mr McMullan:
Yes. Drivers cannot refuse and they cannot charge extra. That is all part of the regulations.

That completes the proposed amendments. Most of them are fairly small, but they iron out some ambiguities and will help us in future.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Adele and John. If members do not want to add anything or seek clarity on any issue, we will move on to the enforcement issue that arose last week.

I thank Mr Stephen Spratt and Mr John Martin for attending. I understand that you work in the enforcement section of the Department — so that section will be 50% down today. I invite you both to say something about enforcement and how you are fixed at the moment. I presume that you have been briefed before coming today. Time and again, when the Committee has been taking oral evidence, enforcement has cropped up as a major recurring theme. Last week a witness said that the enforcement section was down another member — and it was a small team to begin with, which is another issue. The Committee would like to hear about your role, and members will raise concerns about current and future enforcement. Much of the Taxis Bill rides on having proper and adequate enforcement and dedicated resources. Do you have any sequence for speaking?

Mr John Martin (Department of the Environment):
We will give the Committee a 10- to 15-minute talk on the background of enforcement and what we are doing. We will then take the Committee through the Bill and how we see enforcement being taken forward. We will present four key topics and then answer any questions that members might have. The issue of having four members of staff will be covered in the presentation.

The Chairperson:
OK. Please go ahead.

Mr Martin:
First, I would like to thank the Chairperson and the Committee for giving us the opportunity to give an insight into enforcement and to show what we have being doing to date and what we will be doing after the Taxi Bill becomes law.

The first key subject is the utilisation of additional resources made available to DVTA enforcement in 2003. Members who were in the Assembly then may recall that the taxi-licensing fee increased by £20 to provide additional funding.

Prior to 2003, taxi enforcement was undertaken by the DVTA on an ad hoc basis, and it was given a relatively low priority in comparison to goods vehicle or bus enforcement. Concerns about the lack of enforcement were elevated to a political level by the industry, which set out that DVLA did not have effective strategies to deal with the unlicensed sector, estimated to be around 40% in 2003.

The industry also felt that enforcement was too focused on volumetric targets, which involved the systematic checking of licensed taxis, while illegal taxis drove past because they had no signs on them. To improve the situation at that time, additional funding was made available to DVTA through an increase of £20 on the cost of the taxi-licensing fee and an overall increase in the budget was provided by the core Department. As a result of the additional revenue, DVTA established a dedicated taxi enforcement team in 2003. One of its main focuses was to deal with the unlicensed sector of the industry.

The team, which consisted of four full-time dedicated officers, was based in Belfast. However, it had another 21 enforcement officers to call upon. Those 21 officers dealt mainly with goods vehicle and bus enforcement. However, the team was able to call upon them to undertake larger-scale operations around the Province.

I will provide details of the number of taxis that have been licensed over the last four years and the income generated from that, because some concerns were raised about the amount of revenue being generated from the extra £20 and the use to which it was being put.

I will give a couple of examples: in 2003-04, 7,167 taxis were tested. The actual income from that equated to £143,000, while the Department spent £267,000 on taxi enforcement. In the financial year 2006-07, 10,334 taxis were tested and the income from that — which included the £20 extra on the licensing fee — was £206,680, and the Department spent £294,000 on taxi enforcement.

Over the past four years, 35,475 taxis have been tested, generating a total income of £709,000, and the total expenditure on taxi enforcement has been more than £1 million. More has been spent on taxi enforcement than has been received in revenue from the extra £20 taxi-licensing fee.

The Chairperson:
Will you be expanding on those figures, because a substantial amount of money has been spent on enforcement? The Committee would be anxious to hear how that money is being spent. If four members of staff are engaged in enforcement, is the rest of the money being spent on administrative costs or elsewhere?

Mr Martin:
Spending involves a combination of the salaries for the full-time enforcement officers; the cost of administrative support; the cost of processing prosecutions, and the costs of travel, subsistence, overtime, equipment, vehicles and some management charges that are built in.

The Chairperson:
How many members of staff is that for in total?

Mr Martin:
In 2003, there were four permanent members of staff who dealt with enforcement for the taxi industry.

The Chairperson:
That amounts to £250,000 apiece.

Mr Martin:
When one considers the four members of staff and all of the ancillary activities; such as processing prosecution cases, administrative support and accommodation costs —

The Chairperson:
Do other staff process prosecutions?

Mr Martin:
An enforcement officer’s role is to investigate levels of non-compliance and complaints. He will make detections at the roadside and gather sufficient evidence. If there is sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution, the officer will generate the initial file. The file must go through an administrative process and is then passed to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). When the enforcement officer completes the initial file, it goes through an administrative process and a management process in order to ensure that when it reaches the PPS —

The Chairperson:
Is that a departmental process, rather than that of the specific section? In other words, is all the money that is spent classed as central departmental expenditure, which is not specific to the branch that deals with enforcement of taxi regulations?

Mr Martin:
The money has always been spent by the enforcement branch of the Department, which completes the entire process.

The Chairperson:
How many staff would be involved from the initiation of the process; for example, from when an enforcement officer stops a driver because there is a problem? How many enforcement branch staff would be involved in the process to deal with the matter before it is passed on elsewhere? How many staff would be employed by the branch?

Mr Martin:
The total staff complement for enforcement is 32.

The Chairperson:
Does that include administrative staff and officers on the ground?

Mr Martin:
That includes administrative staff, officers on the ground, the management structure, policy staff, and so on, to cover the enforcement section’s full remit. The section is not solely staffed by the officers who stop vehicles at the roadside. There is a support structure of administrative staff, management staff, staff who develop policies for stopping vehicles and for dealing with investigations. A large amount of money is associated with non-productive activities.

There are four full-time members of staff. However, staff are regularly brought in from other teams to supplement the four full-time staff during, for example, large-scale operations in Belfast, Derry or Newry, or perhaps during covert operations that require more than four staff. Therefore, there might be eight staff during such operations, four of whom were from the taxi team and the other four from the goods teams. That is the cost for all staff, taking into consideration all of their salaries, when they have been involved with taxi enforcement. It is not just the salaries of the four full-time staff, but also includes costs for the time spent by additional staff on taxi enforcement.

In 2003, the DVTA realised that the previous approach to enforcement did not deal with what was required. Officers were carrying out high visibility checks while wearing yellow coats. The legal taxi industry — those drivers who had signs, licences, and so on — had nothing to fear. However, they got caught up in the checks, while the illegal drivers, who did not have signs, were harder to identify and simply drove past.

Therefore, in order to utilise the new taxi enforcement team effectively, it was necessary to move the focus from working in a high-profile capacity to working in a more covert, investigative unit. That proved to be an effective approach towards securing reliable, first-hand prosecution evidence. Previously, passengers were reluctant to provide statements of evidence or to attend court as witnesses.

The team also adopted a more proactive and reactive management approach in response to complaints and intelligence, using the national intelligence model to grade and prioritise high-level work priorities. An example of high-priority work in 2003 was to target illegal taxi drivers, disqualified drivers, and drivers who operated poorly-maintained vehicles.

The enforcement office received a number of complaints that enabled us to target particular taxi depots that were reportedly operating illegal taxis. Since April 2003, the DVTA, working in partnership with the PSNI, has carried out 641 taxi operations and checked around 13,000 taxis. That has resulted in 291 commercial taxi radio sets being seized by the police, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, on behalf of enforcement officers. Upwards of £150,000 in fines has been generated; 1,650 penalty points have been awarded to taxi drivers; and 80 drivers have received a driving ban in that period. In total, there were 824 prosecutions for taxi drivers who had no public-service licence, 513 prosecutions for those who had no driving licence, eight prosecutions for those driving while totally disqualified and 742 prosecutions for those who had no insurance. That gives the Committee an indication as to what the enforcement office’s activities have been since 2003.

In addition, we see education and communication as key in addressing the problems that exist. Best practice has traditionally been developed through experience coupled with a combination of internal and external training. The DVTA has made a significant investment in training taxi-enforcement officers; all officers are required to obtain the Advanced Professional Certificate in Investigative Practice, which is equal to NVQ level 5. That is a high standard, which all our taxi-enforcement officers have attained.

Introducing effective systems of educating drivers and operators was also made a high priority, which resulted in the introduction of advice being routinely given during roadside spot checks. Frequent meetings have been hosted with the industry at all levels so that people are aware of their legal requirements. The DVTA also committed resources to promotional events, which aimed to raise awareness of taxi compliance in the greater public arena. Examples of those include the 2005 Motorplus show and the 2006 DVA Roadworthiness Open Day, in which the taxi industry participated.

It must be remembered that the police can enforce all taxi regulations as part of their normal activities. The enforcement office has also undertaken a number of training sessions with the PSNI to train existing officers and new recruits on taxi regulations.

We are also focusing on forging a strong alliance with the taxi industry; to that end our enforcement officers have established a professional relationship at all levels with industry representatives.

I am aware that taxi-industry representatives have submitted oral evidence to the Committee, which included the claim that the DVA intend to reduce the number of dedicated enforcement officers from five to four — something that the Chairperson mentioned earlier. The DVA recently completed an evaluation of its high-level business priorities in the enforcement section. That exercise identified strong business grounds for a temporary restructuring of the section. That was done by reducing the number of enforcement teams dedicated to goods-vehicle enforcement from two small teams to one large team based in Craigavon. The evaluation also supported increasing the number of enforcement officers presently attached to the taxi-enforcement team; so as opposed to its members going down to four it has now gone up to over five.

The Chairperson: 
How much over five?

Mr Martin: 
Five plus an allocation of 0·3; one person, who manages the team, has a third of his time dedicated to being an enforcement officer.

The Chairperson:
But he is a manager, not an enforcement officer. Is he doing that for one third of his time?

Mr Martin:
That is correct. So the complement has not gone down to four; it has gone up slightly.

The Chairperson:
The complement is the same as it was before.

Mr Martin:
Not exactly; the team used to have four members.

The Chairperson:
It had four members, but before that the team had five members. That is what the Committee is discussing.

Mr Martin:
In 2003 there were four members. Between 2003 and 2007 the number of members rose to five, which is the level it is staying at. We are also allocating an additional resource of management.

The Chairperson: 
To be fair, the Committee is discussing the situation in the last year, not about what it was four or five years ago.

Mr Martin:
It is currently sitting at five plus, with a management resource of one third.

Mr Clarke:
Can we get into this matter before we hear the rest of the presentation? I am grey, and I am going to be completely bald before this is over? I am totally frustrated. The Committee has had various presentations from the taxi industry that have reported consistently that there are not enough enforcement officers. With no disrespect to the two gentlemen here, because they are only the messengers, they are going to be shot today, because they are telling us what a wonderful job they are doing, and yet we have had the whole taxi industry saying what a poor job is being done by the enforcement section. Can we look at that matter, Mr Chairman?

The Chairperson:
Yes. Please complete the presentation, Mr Martin, and we will come back to that point.

Mr Clarke:
Do you have any tablets, Mr Chairman?

Mr Martin:
One of the key weaknesses within the existing taxi legislative framework is that anyone wishing to operate a taxi depot can do so provided they obtain adequate planning permission and a commercial taxi radio licence so that they cannot operate out of just any depot. Officers have encountered illegal taxis operating and controlled from an array of premises that range from Portakabins to private dwellings in residential housing developments. Those businesses operate free from regulatory control and often from premises that do not meet suitable accessibility standards.

The big weakness with the existing system is that there is no regulatory provision to make taxi depots accountable for the types of taxis that carry passengers on their behalf, or keep records of customer bookings, etc.

Enforcement officers are currently powerless to stop repeat offenders. We stop taxi drivers on a regular basis who have flouted the regulations on two or three occasions, and continue to do so. We cannot physically put them off the road. All we can do is gather sufficient evidence and process the cases through to prosecution stage. That is another serious weakness.

We do not have any jurisdiction over taxis that are sitting in the Harbour Estate, for instance, where they service a lot of the cruise liners, or at the Odyssey complex, which is part of the Belfast Harbour Commissioner’s land. We have no authority to deal with taxis operating illegally at those venues. There are also not enough taxis to deal with public demand on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights between the hours of 8.00 pm to 4.00 am, and that entices people to operate illegally.

Enforcement officers also do not have the authority to issue fixed-penalty notices. Currently, if we detect an offence at the roadside we have to go through the court process, which is long, costly, laborious and time-consuming. We are in the process of looking at introducing a fixed-penalty system.

The enforcement office’s strategy in combating future illegal activities includes proposals to recruit additional staff to enable us to deal with the issues in the taxi industry. We have had only between four and five members of staff over the last few years, and that is not sufficient to deal with the problems. Our staff have been successful, but there are nowhere near enough of them, and that is recognised and appreciated. We intend to establish a more regionalised approach to deal with the problems, with teams in Belfast, the north-west and the west of the Province.

As I have already said, we hope to adopt a fixed-penalty and deposit-scheme approach, which will allow us to deal with offences more efficiently and effectively, as opposed to all our cases going through the courts, which takes a lot of time and money.

We also intend to introduce live access to data at the roadside through the use of laptop computers, and will be investing in new equipment and technology. We have purchased two high-visibility liveried vehicles, which have proven to be quite effective at the roadside, in highlighting to the industry that enforcement officers are trying to deal with the problems. We have also recently purchased two automatic number-plate recognition cameras that will enable us to target the unlicensed sector of the industry.

As I have said, we are hoping to recruit 15 to 18 members of staff.

We are currently working with the Department to determine how those staff will be funded to enable us to deal more effectively with the issues in the industry. One of the main reasons for having the Taxis Bill in the first place is to strengthen the regulatory framework for taxis and enforcement. If regulations and powers were in place to enable us to deal with the problems in the industry, and if we had the necessary staff, we would not need the Taxis Bill. That is one of the main reasons why we are here.

The Chairperson:
I would like some clarity on recruitment. You said at one point that you were hoping to recruit, and then, on another occasion, you said that you were proposing to recruit. At what stage is the recruitment process, and what type of staff would be recruited?

Mr Martin:
The current position is that we have assessed the provisions in the Bill. We are fully aware of the difficulties in the industry with unlicensed and defective vehicles. We have worked up figures in relation to the number of staff that we perceive that we need to deal with those issues and to enforce the new licensing regime effectively. We have identified the number of staff that we need and that that they will work on a regionalised basis, and we are in the process of considering how the salaries for those staff will be funded.

The Chairperson:
At this stage, no recruitment process has been started, then.

Mr Martin:
No recruitment process has started because the Bill has not come into effect yet. We are simply carrying out the initial development work.

The Chairperson:
So your recruitment is based solely on the Bill?

Mr Martin:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
So, at the moment, you do not identify any weaknesses or shortcomings in enforcement?

Mr Martin:
No, that is not what I am saying. My point is that the current regulatory framework is deficient. We recognise that to bring this matter forward, we need additional powers. That is one of the main reasons for the Taxis Bill. We need additional staff to ensure that when the enhanced licensing regime is introduced, it can be effectively regulated. At the moment, we do not have sufficient funds to recruit additional staff. We will make representations to the Department that we need x amount of money to effectively regulate the provisions of the Bill.

The Chairperson:
Let me just get this clear; at this stage, you are working up a case, but you have not yet made that case to the Department?

Mr Martin:
It is at an advanced stage. I cannot say what stage it is at exactly, but it is a very advanced stage. We are hoping for a positive response from the Department on funding.

The Chairperson:
With the greatest of respect, you cannot get a positive response from the Department if you have not submitted a proposal.

Mr Martin:
It has been submitted.

The Chairperson:
It has? Sorry, but I thought you said that the case was at an advanced stage.

Mr Martin:
Yes, but it is not finalised.

The Chairperson:
Sorry, but what part is not finalised?

Mr Martin:
The actual approval.

The Chairperson:
Do you mean the approval from the Department?

Mr Martin:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
So, you have submitted a bid to the Department for extra funding, and the Department has not responded yet.

Mr Martin:
Final approval has not been given.

The Chairperson:
OK, that is a bit clearer.

Mr Boylan:
I was just trying to make some sense of the whole issue, to be honest.

Mr Martin, you gave figures over a four-year period, and you mentioned the cost of enforcement and the money generated by enforcement. You also said that 500 people were caught taxiing without a licence. Could you go through those figures again, please? Can you tell me how much, on average, has been generated through enforcement, and whether that money has been put back into enforcement?

Mr Martin:
We have carried out 641 taxi operations since April 2003. We have also checked 12,926 taxis. During that period, 291 commercial radio sets — the radio sets that they use to communicate — have been seized from taxi operators. Some 997 drivers have been reported for prosecution.

During that time, fines totalling £147,000.97 were imposed. Payment of fines does not go into enforcement but into the consolidated fund. The courts awarded 1,654 penalty points for various offences. Immediate driving bans were given to 80 drivers, either as a result of an offence or because they already had sufficient penalty points on their licence to lead to a licence suspension.

Of the 997 drivers who were prosecuted, the range of offences was as follows: 824 did not have a public service vehicle licence, which is the licence for the taxi; 513 did not have a taxi driver’s licence; eight did not have a driving licence as they had been disqualified from driving, and were prosecuted again for not having a licence, and 742 had no insurance.

Mr S Spratt:
The figure of 742 uninsured drivers is a good benchmark, as they did not have a PSV licence either. Therefore, 742 drivers were working as taxi drivers in private saloon cars and carrying out a stealth activity in the black economy, which the normal eye could not detect.

That re-emphasises the amount of resources that it took to enable officers to collect satisfactory evidence for the higher reward test. We are highly visible when we stop a vehicle; normally, the driver will say that the passengers are his friends, and the passengers will say that the driver is giving them a lift. In cases where passengers have disclosed that the vehicle is a taxi, and have asked us to get them another taxi, they were not prepared to take the case to the next stage and go to court. In order to thwart that, our staff must operate in a stealth capacity so that they can gather evidence first-hand. Using legislation such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and putting undercover operatives on the ground is expensive and convoluted, and has resulted in this process.

Pre-2003, we made detections that resulted mainly in apparent offences. We had enough evidence to strongly suggest that the offenders were operating illegally, but such cases did not go to court because they did not pass the evidential test. We are seeking to impress upon the Committee that the 742 drivers who have been picked up operating without insurance also did not have a PSV licence, and that the vast majority of them did not have a taxi driver’s licence. However, because that licence is so easy to obtain they could get it in any case. Some of them do not want a licence because that may compromise them by alerting the authorities to the fact that they work elsewhere. There are various reasons why some have driving licences and some do not.

The Chairperson:
How many of those 742 drivers were exclusively picked up by the police, with no involvement from your organisation?

Mr S Spratt:
None: those figures represent our staffing resources.

The Chairperson:
Therefore, there is a bigger problem potentially, and other offenders could have been picked up by the police.

Mr S Spratt:
The figures do not reflect detections by the police. From the perspective of our operational protocol the role of the police is to provide operational support. When we put operatives on the ground to travel in taxis, the police are there to uphold the law and to provide operational support. In certain areas, detecting bandit operators involves going through a plethora of proper planning and preparation before the operation take place.

As John has highlighted, we also have to draw in resources from other sections and utilise 21 other members of staff: in certain operations there may be four staff on the ground and an additional eight in the background who carry out pre-surveillance work, provide surveillance, and give support by speaking to passengers after the event. There is a lot of work involved to support the four staff on the ground. The back-end is much bigger than the just the four staff who are upfront.

Mr Martin:
To give the Committee an insight into some operational tactics; prior to 2003 staff used high-visibility jackets. They stood on the roadside and, essentially, only checked vehicles that looked like taxis.

It is a more resource–intensive activity now. We are in plain clothes; we are phoning depots and posing as passengers, and taking rides in taxis because that is the only way that we can obtain evidence that people are operating illegal taxis.

Whereas, if we are wearing high-visibility jackets and speak to a driver, he might say that the vehicle is not a taxi. We might speak to the passengers, who will say that the driver is just a mate. However, because there are about 15 complaints in the system, we know that the driver is providing a taxi service but we cannot get the evidence to take a case to court. It is a resource-intensive activity.

Mr Boylan:
I wondered where the money to finance that operation was coming from. You mentioned a strategy. Are you thinking about including the taxi marshals in the enforcement system? Taxi marshals were mentioned earlier, but who is going to stop a person touting for one firm or another? Would it not be better to give the marshals enforcement powers, rather than having to employ enforcement officers to go and stand up to those people. At the minute, you cannot operate from the Harbour Estate and at the Odyssey.

Mr Martin:
Hopefully, the Taxi Bill will change all that.

Mr S Spratt:
I would like to comment on the role of the marshal, having given serious consideration to the work that our staff do. For example, if one person is sent out to marshal a taxi rank and carry out enforcement activities in the city centre at 11.00 pm, midnight or 1.00 am — when there might be many intoxicated people and serious potential for public order offences to be committed — health and safety considerations will limit what he or she can do.

I see the marshal’s role as being partly to interface with the customer; he will exist predominately to bring order to the taxi ranks. He can also provide an interface between drivers and the Department. We can build into our strategy a reactive strand whereby, following consultation with marshals and drivers on local issues that build up at ranks, we can enforce those issues.

If the marshals were to take up enforcement responsibilities — given the splits and different views and factions in the industry at the moment — it would quickly become difficult for them to carry out that role on health and safety grounds alone. They would probably require permanent police support eventually.

Mr Weir:
Before I move onto the crux of the matter, which is the potential recruitment of new staff, I want to clarify a point that confused me slightly during the evidence. In answer to a previous question, you mentioned that you had more success when you switched from a high-visibility approach to a more subtle approach. When enforcement officers wore the high-visibility jackets they had limited success, whereas officers in plain clothes were more successful. It strikes me that, when tackling crime, you can go down one of two routes. For example, if there is antisocial behaviour in an area, sometimes the high visibility of police can act as a deterrent or shift people on. However, it strikes me that the most productive route in your case is that of plain-clothes, undercover enforcement.

What surprised me was that you mentioned that you intended to get two high-visibility vehicles. I would have thought that, rather than leading to more prosecutions, that would be counterproductive. If I were an uninsured or unlicensed taxi driver, and I were to spot a high-visibility vehicle and enforcement officers, I would get offside very quickly.

Mr Clarke:
You would probably tell others too.

Mr Weir:
Yes. What was the thinking behind that intention?

Mr Martin:
We can use an array of possible tactics when we are planning operations. For example, if we are going into Belfast to detect unlicensed taxis, we might deploy a covert approach and phone an operator or try to pick up a taxi on the street. The benefit of using the high-visibility vehicles is that, just as you and your colleague said, we can go into an area two or three times a week, and unlicensed or uninsured drivers, or those with defective vehicles, will see the vehicle, and they might go home. If they see the vehicle regularly, it may deter them from operating illegally. We would use a combination of the two approaches.

Mr Weir:
When the police have been highly visible in a specific area to try to — for want of a better term — scare off crowds of young people, it can work for that specific area. However, the crowd congregates elsewhere. The danger is that those high visibility vehicles will simply shift the problem elsewhere. For example, if there is a problem outside Antrim railway station, would that problem not simply be shifted elsewhere?

Mr Martin:
We are not saying that the high visibility vehicles are a sole approach; they are used in conjunction with other approaches.

Mr Weir:
Problems have been raised about enforcement. To be fair, several witnesses made complimentary remarks regarding the work that the enforcement officers were doing. However, owing to a lack of resources, they are unable to stem the flow.

What is the scale of the bid for the 15 to 18 members of staff? Is it simply going to involve the relocation of existing resources in the Department, or is a bid going to the Department of Finance and Personnel? Having been involved with another organisation, my experience has been that when one Department eventually gives a green light for a bid, a business case then also has to be approved by the Department of Finance and Personnel.

How many of the 15 to 18 members of staff would actually be enforcement officers out on the ground? You have been getting favourable responses from the Department, but, as yet, you have not got approval. If you get approval, what would be the likely timescale for the new members of staff to become operational?

Mr Martin:
Those staff will be on the front line dealing with the issues at the roadside. We are not ashamed to say that we have done a reasonably good job. However, it has to be taken into consideration that we have had extremely limited resources, and have been working with legislation that was inadequate. However, a number of staff will be working on the front line.

We are hoping to appoint staff and to have them ready for duties prior to the implementation of the Bill. In other words, when the Bill becomes law, the staff will be trained and ready to roll.

Mr Weir:
When do you think that that will happen?

Mr Martin:
That depends on the progress of the Bill. We think that it may be late 2008 or early 2009. We are hoping appoint the staff in middle or latter half of 2008.

Mr Weir:
What is the overall value of the bid? What is the amount in the business case that you have submitted?

Mr Martin:
The business case not only reflects additional resources for taxi enforcement; it also reflects additional resources for other enforcement vehicles that we have to increase our activities on. It is in the region of 15 to 18 members of staff.

Mr Weir:
Will you tell the Committee what the monetary resource is?

The Chairperson:
It may be useful if the witnesses provided the figures to the Committee in writing.

Mr Weir:
I do not want to get approximate figures. Will you provide those figures in writing? The figure of £1·5 million was mentioned. I presume that that will be being requested from the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Mr T Clarke:
Can I get clarification; are you both enforcement officers?

Mr Martin:
Yes, we are enforcement officers and managers. We have come through the enforcement field as operatives, and we are now managers in the enforcement regime.

Mr T Clarke:
Therefore, are you no longer enforcement officers?

Mr Martin:
We still undertake enforcement activities.

Mr T Clarke:
I am getting confused again. Are you still one of the four enforcement officers?

Mr Martin:
Stevie is the one third — he is the senior manager in charge of the enforcement section.

The Chairperson:
Were you in the enforcement section before?

Mr S Spratt:
Yes, I was an enforcement operative a few years ago.

The Chairperson:
Have you been there all along?

Mr S Spratt:
I still invest my time going out with the staff on occasions.

The Chairperson:
Have you consistently been in enforcement?

Mr S Spratt:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
Thank you very much for giving us your time. We look forward to getting further detail from you.

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