Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 18 October 2007

Taxis Bill

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

18 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 Samuel Gardiner 
Mr Ian McCrea

Witnesses: 
Mr Bill Laverty ) Department of the Environment 
Mr John McMullan ) 
Mrs Adele Watters )

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
I welcome Mr Bill Laverty, Mr John McMullan and Mrs Adele Watters from the Department of the Environment. I believe that you are going to give the Committee a short introduction and that John will then provide a short summary of each clause.

Mr Ford:
On a technical point; when they were with us last week, the officials were referring to the printed copy of the Bill, which contains line numbers. Committee members have before them what appears to be a printout from the website, which does not have line numbers. That makes it difficult to follow what the officials are talking about in detail. Could we all have the same version of the Bill when we are doing clause-by-clause scrutiny?

The Committee Clerk:
The master file and copies of the Bill should be here.

The Chairperson:
Do members have a photocopy of the original Bill?

Mr Ford:
The problem is that each version we have been given has not been a copy of the original Bill.

The Committee Clerk:
We will get that version for members.

Mrs Adele Watters (Department of the Environment):
I will make a few brief introductory comments on two matters. The first is a preamble to today’s proceedings, and the second will pick up on some of the matters that Mr Shiels mentioned concerning the enabling nature of the Bill. The Bill team is happy to be here today, and we will try to assist the Committee in any way.

First, we have been working with the Committee Clerk and her staff to provide the Department’s comments on the key issues identified in the written submissions and in the oral evidence. Although the Department has not attempted to respond to every comment, we are happy to answer questions on anything raised in the written submissions and oral evidence or on any other points pertaining to the Bill. We will try to answer members’ questions as fully as possible, but, if there are questions we cannot answer, we will try to respond before next week’s meeting.

Secondly, the Bill is enabling legislation: its purpose is to put into place a new framework for taxi regulation. When the proposed legislation was being brought forward as an Order in Council, the Department issued an information note with it at consultation stage — that note has been circulated to members. It set out the Department’s vision and described the key elements of the new system when fully in place. The Department is pleased with that approach because it was open and transparent and helped us to engage stakeholders, particularly the taxi industry, in the issues. It has also meant that the Committee has received a number of responses, some directly on the Bill and many others on the implications of the future reform programme.

As Mr Shiels said, there will be a lot of detail in the implementation of the Bill, and we will be returning to the Committee with consultation papers, regulatory impact assessments and, of course, regulations. We will be able to engage with the Committee on detail at that time. We look forward to engaging with the Committee over the coming years in that programme and are happy to start today by assisting with the clause-by-clause scrutiny.

Mr John McMullan (Department of the Environment):
Part 1, Chapter 1 of the Bill deals with the regulation of taxi operators. Clause 1, which deals with the requirement for operator’s licences, is one of the Bill’s fundamental clauses. At the moment, there is no regulation for taxi operators in Northern Ireland. Clause 1 will make it a requirement for a person to have an operator’s licence before he or she can operate a taxi service. Operating a taxi service without such as licence will be an offence with a maximum fine of £5,000. The exception to that requirement will be for the “affiliated driver”, who is a person who works for an operator and therefore comes under the umbrella of that operator’s licence.

The term “operate a taxi service” is defined in the Bill and encompasses the present modes of taxi business, which are: accepting a taxi booking and standing or plying for hire. It is worth mentioning that, at the top of page 2 of the Bill, the definition of the term “operate a taxi service” is “subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed.” That phrase will allow the Department to make exemptions to the requirements of an operator’s licence. Basically, that is the set-up.

The Chairperson:
Will you clarify where that provision may be found in the Bill?

Mr McMullan:
It is the last few words of clause 1. The wording reads:

“subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed.”

The Chairperson:
Did you say exceptions or exemptions?

Mr McMullan:
The word is “exceptions”. It allows us to except — or exempt, I suppose — certain activity that does not equate to operating a taxi service.

Mrs Watters:
Does the Committee want officials to address the key issues raised?

The Chairperson:
I apologise. Do you mean as regards to how the Committee wishes to deal with the issues at today’s meeting?

Mrs Watters:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
We would like you to present a brief overview of each clause, then, if members wish to raise an issue based on some of the written or oral evidence that the Committee has received, they can do so. Questions can also be based on the departmental comments that have been included in the synopsis. Members have the key issues before them, which they can peruse as you present details of the clauses. John, have you dealt with clause 1, completely?

Mr McMullan:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
Do members have any issues that they would like to raise from the evidence that has been received? I asked about “exceptions” or “exemptions” because of an issue that was raised by undertakers. They suggested that vehicles used for mourners should be granted an exemption from the licence. What is the Department’s view on that?

Mrs Watters:
Traditionally in Northern Ireland, funeral cars have been regarded as public service vehicles and have been licensed as taxis. They are granted many exemptions from certain requirements, such as those for signage, taximeters, and so forth. The Department has always taken the view that if a vehicle is being provided for hire and reward then, in the interests of those who pay for those services, it is important that such a vehicle is regulated.

The situation in GB is different, and that is partly why the National Association of Funeral Directors suggested the exemption. We do not know much more about the funeral directors’ position other than what is in their written submission. We invited them to meet us, as did the Committee, to explore their position in more detail. Without pre-empting the outcome of that meeting, the Department’s starting position is that it would prefer them to remain covered by the legislation rather than exempted on the face of the Bill. If a strong case were to be made, there is provision in the Bill for an exemption.

The Chairperson:
Are there any other queries?

Mr Boylan:
Are affiliated drivers who work for a firm but also work privately required to obtain an operator’s licence?

Mrs Watters:
I am not sure whether that issue comes under clause 1. Is the member content for us to return to the matter when it is dealt with under a later clause?

Mr Boylan:
I just wondered, because affiliated drivers are mentioned in clause1.

Mrs Watters:
There may be occasions when the detailed comments have been correctly linked with a clause and other occasions when they relate to other clauses.

Mr T Clarke:
To be seen as a totally reasonable person, given our last debate, I would say that clause 1 is fine. My only query relates to the smaller operator. Could the cost of an operator’s licence be banded according to the size of a business? That would help small businesses and act as an incentive for them to ensure that they operate within the law.

Mrs Watters:
Yes, there is that flexibility. In the information note to which I referred, we were conscious that the industry would be concerned about the size and structure of the fees. Feedback from the industry should that it would be happiest for the fee to reflect, roughly, the size of the business. Therefore, small operators would pay a greatly reduced fee.

The Chairperson:
Are members content? Before moving on to clause 1(2) —

Mr McMullan:
We have covered all subsections in clause 1. Perhaps we should move on to clause 2.

The Chairperson:
Sorry, I did not realise that. In that case, is the Committee broadly happy with clause 1?

Mr T Clarke:
During the oral submissions it was suggested that an operator’s licence should be required at places such as Belfast City Airport. Would that form part of the legislation?

Mrs Watters:
The legislation will cover every taxi business, irrespective of its size or where it operates.

Mr T Clarke:
Therefore, a business operating there should have an operator’s licence.

Mrs Watters:
Yes, absolutely.

The Chairperson:
Are members broadly content with clause 1?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 2(1) provides that:

“Any person may apply to the Department for an operator’s licence.”

Clause 2(2) states that the applicant must state the name and address of an operating centre in Northern Ireland. Clause 2(4) states that the Department will grant an operator’s licence if it is satisfied that the person is a fit and proper person and meets any other requirements that may be prescribed. The Department may impose conditions on a licence, and the important point to note in clause 2(5) is that it may specify a percentage of vehicles that must be of a particular class. The Department wants to be able to set a percentage for operators as regards accessible vehicles.

Clause 2(7) states that the licence will be granted for five years, and any refusal of a licence will be subject to appeal to the magistrates’ court.

The Chairperson:
Members will recall Mr Grogan, the driver with literacy problems, who provided evidence to the Committee. He is probably a brilliant driver, but he queried the obstacles that may be placed in the way of his being able to fulfil that role and how he — and people like him — could be accommodated. I am not sure where that is covered in the Bill, but it is an important issue.

Mrs Watters:
I agree. Those points are reflected under clause 1. Mr Grogan said that drivers who cannot read or write should be exempt from holding an operator’s licence — and I think that he said that in response to a question from Mr Ford. I believe Mr Grogan had two main concerns: first, he was concerned about whether he would be able to meet the training requirement; and, secondly, whether he would be able to maintain the required records. The Department’s feeling is that the duties for an operator should be proportionate and take account of circumstances. A sole operator’s recording requirements will be different from those required by a driver from a larger depot, for example. In discussion with Mr Grogan, we suggested that there would be different ways of recording the information that he was required to keep. The meters used in taxis are sophisticated small computers, and they may be able to keep a lot of the information that the driver is required to keep. The Department wants to explore various workarounds for operators’ record keeping.

As regards training requirements, the Department has been working closely with GoSkills — part of the Sector Skills Council for Road Passenger Transport — and the Department for Employment and Learning. They will soon commence a specific programme to develop essential skills training for taxi drivers, who will be trained in reading, writing and ICT. It is intended that a number of drivers will undertake the training in the next couple of years. The Department, therefore, is taking a number of positive steps to accommodate such people as Mr Grogan.

Mr T Clarke:
One of the issues arising was that a sex offender should not be able to obtain a taxi operator’s licence. The Department’s view is that:

“it would not be appropriate to amend the Taxis Bill to automatically bar any category of offender from obtaining a licence. Such a provision would potentially conflict with the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Order ( Northern Ireland) 2003”.

Surely the opposite applies. Barring any category of offender would protect children, would it not?

Mrs Watters:
That is correct. However, the Department is saying that the rules and arrangements for vetting and barring are set out in legislation relating to the protection of children and vulnerable adults, which came out of the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders.

The Chairperson:
Therefore, you are saying that there is other legislation to oversee those issues?

Mrs Watters:
Yes. The Taxis Bill may state that a person must be fit and proper in order to get an operator’s licence, but the Department can only go so far in stating what constitutes a “fit and proper person” before someone steps in and says that the arrangements for all occupations and professions are set out in other legislation.

The Chairperson:
Therefore, other legislation would provide that definition for all Departments.

Mr T Clarke:
However, the wording of the Department’s response is not good.

Mrs Watters:
I apologise if it looks as if there is some conflict.

Mr T Clarke:
The response states that such a provision would potentially conflict with the protection of children, but the contrary is true.

Mr Ford:
It says that it would conflict with the Order.

Mr T Clarke:
That is not what it says.

Mr Ford:
It is what it is says.

The Chairperson:
We know now what the position is, so we have clarity.

There is a suggestion that provision should be made for an internal or independent review of DOE decisions before appeal to the courts. Is the Department going to provide for that?

Mr McMullan:
The Department sees merit in this. A similar provision is included in clause 11, which I hope we will get to today. As occurs in other legislation, the first tier of appeal is to the Department. If a person is still dissatisfied, the appeal then moves to the magistrates’ court. There are several benefits, in that cases that go to the courts unnecessarily can be filtered out and dealt with more quickly. Depending on the Committee’s feelings, the Department would not object to a two-tier appeals system; the first being to the Department, and the second to the magistrates’ court.

The Chairperson:
Are members content with that?

Mr Ford:
I want to refer back to the point made by Eamon Grogan. Does the Department see its provision as applying to existing taxi drivers only, or would it be a continuing provision?

Mrs Watters:
It would be a continuing provision.

Mr Ford:
I welcome the fact that the Department is saying that it sees merit in the informal appeal mechanism, but there needs to be a little bit more than merit. It is slightly anomalous that clause 11 has a specific provision for one area only. I would have thought that there needed to be a bit more spelling-out as to how such an appeal mechanism might operate, although I accept that most of it will be covered by subordinate legislation. One of the things that the drivers are looking for is an assurance that they will get some sort of hearing without having to end up in court.

The Chairperson:
Is it appropriate for the Committee to ask for that to happen as a recommendation or an amendment?

Mrs Watters:
The matter has been raised in written and oral evidence. As has been pointed out, there is an anomaly. The Bill was read across and was drafted from one piece of legislation in such a way that that provision only applied in one instance. Now that it has been brought to our attention, there is merit is applying it more broadly.

Mr Ford:
Given the complexity across a range of different areas, I hope that the Department will return with a comprehensive set of amendments, rather than leaving us to do it. And, for the purposes of Hansard, I see the officials nodding in agreement. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
Is the Committee content that this is a proposed amendment that could be agreed?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 3 places certain duties on licensed operators. First, an operator must use only licensed drivers and vehicles. Failure to do will result in a maximum fine of up to £5,000. An operator must also:

“keep such records as may be prescribed”;

and those records are set out at clause 3(3)(b). An operator must be able to produce those records for departmental inspection. Records of complaints must also be kept, and complaints must be dealt with in such a manner as may be prescribed. Contravention of that provision could also lead to a fine of up to £1,000.

The point made by Mr Boylan is covered by clause 3(7), which deals with affiliated drivers.

“Subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed, a person shall not be an affiliated driver of more than one licensed operator at any one time.”

Exceptions can be worked in under that provision.

The Chairperson:
Are there any questions?

Mr Ford:
How will that provision apply to a sole-operator who may, at times, want to work in a wider grouping and be affiliated to another operator while remaining a sole-operator? That point was raised in one of the submissions.

Mrs Watters:
The Department is saying that the general rule should be that someone can work for only one operator at a time, and that if they are a sole-operator, they are working for themselves. In general, they would not be able to work for themselves and work for a depot as well. In a sense, they would have to make that election.

Through consultations with the industry, we are aware that there may be situations in which a person whose main work during the week comes from school contracts wants to work at the weekend for his brother who has a taxi company. Alternatively, he may want to be available for wedding services. Provided the case is made for such an arrangement, and that it does not undermine the overall intention of operator licensing and is not difficult for operators to control, such activity will be allowed.

However, it should be borne in mind that if someone is working for one operator, and is also working for himself or another operator, the difficulty could be that it may be unclear who that person is actually working for at any given time.

We have provided for exceptions in the Bill to cover situations such as that. The Department cannot foresee any definite exceptions, but has left it open for a case to be made.

The Chairperson:
I see merit in the suggestion that the Department should take into consideration the recommendations of the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland (GCCNI). I know that the Department is meeting with the GCCNI next week. If the GCCNI is to have a role, what shape or form would that take?

Mrs Watters:
It could take the form of an amendment, which would be written into the Bill and would give the GCCNI a statutory role that would require the Department to consult with it on the arrangements for passenger complaints.

Alternatively, it could be the case that the first line of complaint would be to the operator; the second line of complaint would be to the GCCNI, copied to the Department. We want to meet with the GCCNI to find out what they would like to happen in practice, and we will then ascertain how that may be translated into an amendment.

The Chairperson:
Do members agree that that should be proposed as an amendment?

Mrs Watters:
Would the Committee like us to return with details for an amendment that would be agreeable to all parties?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 4 can be described fairly simply. It provides that a licensed operator may only sub-contract a booking to another licensed operator. To do otherwise will be an offence that can result in a £1000 fine being imposed.

The Chairperson:
Are members happy with clause 4?

Mr Ford:
Mr Samuel Egerton asked whether it was legal for someone to ask an affiliated driver to cover a job. Presumably, officials are saying that it is legal only if drivers tell their depot they are doing so.

Mrs Watters:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
In practice, how will that work? Would they inform their depot via mobile phone, or maybe text messages?

Mrs Watters:
Yes, with a mobile phone or a text message it would be very easy to tell the operator that one is doing a job.

The Chairperson:
Yes, as long as you have the number at hand.

Mr T Clarke:
The job could be done by the time a text message is sent.

The Chairperson:
Are we agreed on the general thrust of clause 4?

Members indicated assent

Mr McMullan:
At clause 5, we move into chapter 2 of the Bill, which deals with the hiring of taxis at separate fares. Clause 5 is a general clause, as members can see from the title. It is declaratory, and it states that the bidding of taxis at separate fares is permissible is three ways. The first is under clause 6 by way of a taxi-sharing scheme. The second is under clause 7, which covers the circumstance in which all the passengers book their journeys in advance and consent to sharing a taxi. The third is where the Department authorises an operator to provide a service for the carriage of passengers at separate fares. That sets out what happens in clauses 6, 7 and 8.

Mr Ford: 
The nature of the schemes that the Department may approve appears to be rather unclear. Analogous examples came up in the evidence from the North-West Taxi Proprietors and that from Mr Samuel Egerton, who pointed out that on a weekend night in the centre of Belfast, a taxi driver who finds a passenger who wants to go to Glengormley and two for Ballyclare cannot put them all in his taxi together. Surely to be able to do so would be entirely sensible and worthwhile, and would be in keeping with the Committee’s desire to see large groups of people moved as fast as possible at night. Am I correct that as those clauses are currently drafted, the circumstances that I have outlined are not legal, unless the passengers pretend that they are friends?

Mr McMullan:
That situation is permissible if they book the taxi in advance, because they all consent to sharing the fare. Again, the mobile phone may be useful.

Mr Ford:
If our aim is to get taxi ranks and taxi marshals to operate as efficiently as possible in Belfast, surely people would be asked to share taxis in the interests of efficiency? It appears that the circumstances that I have outlined do not fit the bill, with the clauses as currently drafted.

Mrs Watters:
They do not fit the bill, in the sense that that all sounds reasonable. However, that situation can become unreasonable, and abuse can occur when the person who is dropped off first is charged approximately the same fare as if they had had exclusive use of the taxi, and the customers who are dropped off second are charged in the same way. In that case, the taxi driver wins, but the passengers have not won.

Mr Ford:
They have not lost either.

Mr T Clarke:
How do you police that situation?

Mrs Watters:
Many complaints have been received about such situations. It is all very well when passengers consent, and they are happy, but the problem arises in the situation when there is enforced sharing. If a taxi is going in a certain direction, it is assumed that all the passengers must share the fare, but the basis on which the fare will be divvied up is not clear to the passengers, and that is a situation where abuse can take place.

Mr T Clarke:
If two people pick up a taxi in Belfast and are not friends but constitute separate fares, surely the taxi driver has nevertheless done a good job by taking two people or parties off the street rather than leaving one for another taxi, which may not turn up, especially late at night. Were two people, one going to Glengormley and the other to Antrim, to get in a taxi, they would know that if they were going on their own, they would pay from Belfast to Glengormley, or to Antrim. Why make it so complicated?

Mr Laverty: 
Traditionally, taxis are hired as a whole, although in Northern Ireland the legislation is silent on that. We are trying to legitimise taxi sharing. One of the main stems is the setting up of taxi-sharing schemes. The scheme would be ordered by the Department from particular locations, for example from busy spots in towns and particular ranks. The regulations governing the scheme would state the destinations to which the taxis would go.

Mr T Clarke:
You are complicating the issue. Let us get back to the situation on Saturday night in Belfast. We have heard from the taxi industry that not enough taxis are in operation at that time. Say, for example, four people, two couples, are waiting to get a taxi home. One pair wants to travel to Glengormley and the other wants to travel to Antrim. Under this legislation, what practice are you trying to promote?

Mrs Watters:
Under this legislation, we propose the setting up of a taxi-sharing scheme that would clearly state that the fare to Glengormley would be x and the fare on to Antrim would be y. Both those fares would be cheaper for the passengers than a single separate fare to either destination.

Mr T Clarke:
So if I was travelling to Antrim, the person who is being dropped off in Glengormley would subsidise my fare to Antrim. That is what you are saying, and that is unfair to the taxi industry.

Mr Laverty:
No.

Mr T Clarke:
I will go back to my example of the two couples and the two fares. If those two couples had taken separate taxis, the couple travelling to Antrim would not have had their fare subsidised. Why are we penalising the taxi drivers for clearing the streets more quickly? That is, in effect, what the scheme would do.

Mrs Watters:
Passengers have complained to the Department about their experience of enforced taxi-sharing, where the taxi driver gets all the benefit. He basically gets all the fares —

Mr T Clarke:
He is providing the service.

Mrs Watters:
Yes, the driver is providing the service, but on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Either the passenger shares the taxi with someone else and pays the full fare, or they do not get a taxi at all. We would like a scheme whereby passengers can have exclusive use of a taxi if they wish, but, if they avail of a shared service, they would be able to get a price discount.

Mr T Clarke:
The Department is putting a provision in the Bill that it cannot police.

The Chairperson:
I was about to make that point.

Mr T Clarke:
Through this provision, the Department is trying to criminalise taxi drivers and make life difficult for them, yet it cannot even police the proposal.

The Chairperson:
Let us say that the fare to Glengormley is 20 quid and the fare to Antrim is 40 quid. The Department believes that there should be a required stipulation for a shared fee, whatever it might be. However, how can the Department ensure that those fees are charged?

Mrs Watters:
Situations may arise whereby the passengers and the taxi-drivers are agreed on a fare, and it is in the interests of all parties to come to that arrangement. In those instances, you are right, we cannot enforce any stipulation. However, we want to make provision for sharing schemes.

The Chairperson:
We are back to the situation that was described in evidence that we heard from disabled people. I read last night about a person who had to attend a meeting in the Stormont estate with the NIO. That individual obviously had to be here at a set time. That person had to pay a fare of, I think, 70 quid and had to footer around Stormont for about three hours. No matter how much we legislate here, in practice, excessive fares will still be charged.

Mrs Watters:
Yes. However, we want to at least make provision in the Bill for shared schemes that are properly controlled, and that are of benefit to both the taxi driver and the passenger.

The Chairperson:
That brings me back to the issue of control and enforcement. Those words pop up throughout the Bill.

Mr I McCrea:
You talked about how the scheme would operate from specific ranks. However, passengers may not be near those ranks when they want to go home. Again, it is a matter of taking people off the streets at night. Surely the same rules should apply when someone hails a taxi on the street. I find it difficult to understand how the scheme will be policed. Taxi-sharing will continue to happen in Belfast, whether we like it or not, and whether or not we provide for it in the legislation.

If the scheme were to apply to taxis picking fares up on the street, how would the metering system be factored in? The meter runs from point of pick up to destination. The idea seems to be to help passengers by giving them a fare concession, but no concession can be given if a meter is in operation.

Mr Laverty:
Not every taxi would be allowed to participate in the taxi-sharing scheme. The Bill states that the Department may by Order make a taxi-sharing scheme.

That would be a scheme with a starting point. Taxis at peak times, for example on Friday and Saturday night, that are prepared to travel long distances and accommodate a number of passengers, could drop passengers off on the Antrim Road perhaps, on the way to Glengormley. The fares for the taxi-sharing scheme would be set in the regulations by the Department. There are examples of those schemes operating in London. The main one is at Paddington Station, where a number of taxis provide a zonal service that people can use, providing they are prepared to share a taxi. The fares are set by Transport for London.

Mr T Clarke:
Sorry, I cannot wait any longer to say this: London is bigger than Northern Ireland, so it would be ridiculous for us to try to copy something that is happening in London.

The Chairperson:
There is another aspect to this aside from enforceability. What incentive is there for a taxi driver, other than some currently unenforceable legislative imperative, to do that?

Secondly, I can see how a zoned area works. If you hail a taxi and you know that it is part of a shared scheme, it is your choice, and may be an easy way to get home. The big problem that we have, particularly in Belfast, is will the Department define zones within which such schemes will operate, and only taxis authorised to provide shared services will be available?

Mr I McCrea:
Accessible zones.

The Chairperson:
Yes.

Mr T Clarke:
You are going to put taxi drivers against each other if you go down that route. That is provided that the taxi drivers operate the sharing scheme correctly, because if Patsy and I were taxi drivers, and I was picking up, and Patsy was sitting at the rank waiting for the next fare, if I take two to get the price of one fare that would leave Patsy with nothing. Taxi drivers would not want to take the fares. Why would Patsy want to take a double fare — a Glengormley and an Antrim lift — if he is only being paid for one.

Mr Boylan:
To be honest, if I was paying a certain amount to travel from Armagh to Belfast, and someone got into the taxi at Portadown and paid the same as me, I certainly would not object to that. The main problem that I can see is enforcement. I would like to hear how that could be done. I understand the concept of the proposal. A taxi driver can pick up two people, and get paid £40 for a trip to Bangor and £20 for the half distance as well. What we want is a system that is fair and gives value for money to the passenger as well. I am concerned about enforcement.

The Chairperson:
To come back to that point — the issue of zoning has obviously at least been raised, but have you given any further thought as to how that would work out?

Mrs Watters:
Not a great deal. Remember, the taxi-sharing schemes are something that the Department may put in place, so there is discretion. Where taxi-sharing schemes have been implemented in GB, initially they were on a pilot basis to see how they would work in that particular environment, to assess the demand and to see how they would work out for passengers and drivers. Before the use of those provisions could be ruled out, there could perhaps be one or two pilot schemes, and we would then work out the details and any difficulties over zoning.

Mr T Clarke:
We are launching the space shuttle before we have it built.

The Chairperson:
We need to reach some conclusion. There have been some reservations and caveats inserted around clause 5.

Mrs Watters:
To summarise to ensure that we are agreed: there is an issue about the enforceability of taxi sharing at separate fares. Also, is it that members can envisage situations that although everyone has consented to sharing, advanced bookings would be a problem? Are members saying that that should be provided for in the legislation?

Mr T Clarke:
I am more concerned about the taxi industry. Cathal referred to an Armagh to Portadown trip. If a taxi drives through Portadown, and it is teeming out of the heavens, a customer should not get into that taxi if they do not want to pay the fare. I am thinking of the taxi driver here. Much of the legislation is designed for everyone, but, at the end of the day, the taxi driver is running a business and if he wants to drive past a fare, he should drive past it rather than picking up the fare to share it with someone else.

The Chairperson:
What incentives for taxi drivers are contained in the legislation?

Mrs Watters:
A taxi driver could take one passenger from Belfast to Glengormley and it could cost, for example, £8·00. However, under a taxi-sharing scheme, they could take five passengers, each paying £5·00, and the taxi driver could get £25·00, so everyone wins.

Mr T Clarke:
That scheme does not exist.

Mrs Watters:
Yes, I know, but that level of detail to allow for such a scheme could be provided in the legislation. The idea is that both parties would win in the taxi-sharing scheme. At the moment, when there is taxi sharing, the taxi driver wins and the passengers do not — apart from the fact that they get home.

Mr T Clarke:
That is a fair system, as they are the guys who buy the expensive cars and sit out late at night when we are asleep in bed. Having listened to some of them, they have problems even paying for that investment. Three people sharing a taxi is the norm on Friday or Saturday nights anyway, so the chances of taxis having any space are slim. We are talking about something that does not even happen very often. Anyone who is in business likes to get the icing on the cake. For the taxi driver, the icing on the cake is when they get a double run in the one journey. They should be allowed that icing; therefore, I am against that clause.

Mr Laverty:
Under the taxi-sharing scheme, the taxi driver would get more and the passenger would pay less.

Mr T Clarke:
We do not have a taxi-sharing scheme.

Mr Laverty:
Clause 5 makes provision for that. Not all taxis will participate in the scheme. There is provision in this clause for taxis operating under such a scheme to be discretely identified as taxi-sharing taxis operating from a particular location.

The Chairperson:
Do you have locations in mind, or is that subject to further regulation down the line? Perhaps there would be pilot exercises, subject to zonings, to specific locations and to the identification of such taxis.

Mrs Watters:
Exactly, that is correct. There could be a taxi-sharing scheme at a bus station or train station, for example, particularly where a flood of people arrive at one time. It helps to match passengers to taxis.

The Chairperson:
Will you summarise your view of our opinion?

Mrs Watters:
The Committee feels that enforceability would be a problem, and you would like the Department’s views on how a taxi-sharing scheme could be properly enforced. In essence, that is really the issue.

Mr T Clarke:
What about the taxi driver?

Mrs Watters:
That is where piloting comes in. If the Department were to agree that a taxi-sharing scheme could be set up at Central Station, but the industry were not interested in getting involved, the scheme would not run. It would only run if members of the industry wanted to get involved and, in practice, they often do.

Mr T Clarke:
That is fine, but what about the taxi drivers who would work from other ranks? We need to be sure that we are not tying down that taxi driver in other areas of Belfast or wherever it may be. It is all very well to talk of a special scheme operating at Central Station or wherever, but we have already put something in the legislation that will prevent that from happening.

Mr Gallagher:
Since the Department has an enabling power, it can try out a pilot scheme and develop the taxi-sharing schemes, if there is anything worth developing as a result of the pilot. We are agreeing only that the Department has the power to do that. The taxi industry may then avail of the opportunity; but it is for the industry to reflect on whether it is viable.

Mr T Clarke:
Are we not also saying that they cannot do all the different scenarios that we have said that they are doing? Are we not are preventing them from doing that by agreeing to allow taxi-sharing schemes?

The Chairperson:
We are providing the legislation, but that does not mean that the schemes will happen.

Mr Boylan:
If the operators and customers consent to it they will try it out. That is their choice. We are making it available. If it does not work, it does not work.

Mr T Clarke:
It says here, under Departmental comments, that this is:

“to protect taxi users from being overcharged”.

Do we accept that? Central Station is the pilot scheme; so take that out of the equation. If a taxi driver lifts three customers at Belfast City Hall to go to Glengormley or Antrim, and charges three different fares for three different passengers —

The Chairperson:
Can we arrive at an agreement? Is the Committee happy with the summary that Adele has presented?

Mr T Clarke:
No.

Mr Gallagher:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
Please read it out one final time.

Mrs Watters:
Some members are concerned that the provisions that the Department would like to put in place in relation to taxi-sharing schemes may be unenforceable. One member considers it unfair on taxi drivers to be subjected to any restrictions on when they can charge separate fares, because that is, as he says, the icing on the cake.

Mr T Clarke:
I am happy with that.

The Chairperson:
We will review this aspect again.

[Laughter.]

Mr Gardiner:
The issue is how the schemes would be policed; that is the bottom line.

Mrs Watters:
Yes.

The Chairperson:

We have covered clauses 5 and 6. We will move quickly to clause 7. I want to speed up progress.

Mr McMullan:
We touched on clause 7 as well. That relates to customers booking a journey in advance and then consenting to share that taxi. Mr Clarke’s point that we should not get hung up on the booking. People can hail a taxi and consent to the fare. That is something we will have to consider.

The Chairperson:
Can we move to clause 8?

Mrs Watters:
I should say that there are some points relating to clause 6 that the Committee has not addressed. It is suggested that taxibus operators who already hold a roads service licence should automatically be permitted to operate taxi-sharing schemes. The Department’s view is that that would discourage competition. It was suggested that, if the Department decided to run a taxi-sharing scheme, there should be open competition for taxi drivers who want to be involved.

The Chairperson:
We are agreed on that bit. Let us move on then to clause 8.

Mr McMullan:
We can link clauses 8, 9 and 10, which all do the same thing. This is the situation where the Department can authorise an operator to provide a service at separate fares. This is really the bus-type service which the West Belfast taxis presently operate.

Clause 8 sets out the framework. It enables the Department to authorise an operator’s licence to provide such a service and can restrict it to a particular class of taxi, which the Department sees as accessible taxis, and such other conditions that may be prescribed.

The information that the Department will want from an applicant is set out in clause 9:

“such information as may reasonably be required”

It also includes information about the timetabling of the service. When the Department is deciding on whether to authorise such a licence, it should consider various criteria. Those criteria are based on the interests of people that are likely to use the service, the people that are providing such a service, the suitability of routes, the need for the service and the effect on other holders of the same type of licence or a road service licence.

Clause 10(3) contains an exemption. It states that “Subsection (2)(a) shall not apply”. Subsection 2(a) refers to the suitability of routes. As we said last week, the Department intends that someone who, as the holder of a road service licence, has already gone through all those criteria, should not have to go through the process again. Rather than linking to one criterion, they should be exempt from the whole provision if they hold a road service licence.

Mr T Clarke:
How does a taxibus work?

The Chairperson:
Not mechanically, I hope.

Mr T Clarke:
No, how does it collect its fares?

Mr Laverty:
Taxibuses operate in seven routes in west Belfast and in north Belfast. For PSV purposes, they are licensed as taxis and they go through the PSV test annually. However, the service that they provide is not a typical taxi service. They do not respond to pre-booked calls, and they do not stand for hire as the black taxis in Belfast do. A number of years ago, in addition to licensing taxibuses as taxis, the Department decided to grant them a road service licence, which is a bus operator’s licence, to operate the seven authorised routes.

Mr T Clarke:
Taxibuses have various stops and they can lift more than one passenger at each of those stops. The person who gets on first pays the same price as the next person. That leads to the same point that I have just made about taxi drivers. It is unfair that there are any restrictions on when taxi drivers can charge separate fares. Taxibuses are exempt from those restrictions. A taxibus driver can go on a route and the first and last passengers may be charged £5 for a journey to the centre of Belfast; the passengers are charged separately. However taxi drivers cannot do that. That is a two-tier system, and I can understand the frustration in the industry towards taxibuses. That is why I asked you to outline exactly how they work.

Mrs Watters:
The system is similar to any bus service. Currently, the standard fee on a Translink bus is £1·30, or 65p for a concession. It does not matter at what stage you get on the bus; everyone knows what the deal is.

Mr T Clarke:
It is unfair that someone pays £1·30 and someone behind him also pays £1·30, no matter where they are going. It is considered unfair for taxis to charge separately but not unfair for buses to do it. It is considered unfair for someone to pay the taxi fare from Belfast to Glengormley, and for another passenger to pay the extra part of the fare to Antrim.

The Chairperson:
The average punter does not see a distinction between taxis, whether they are black, blue or red.

Mrs Watters:
The idea is that the deal should be transparent when someone gets a taxi. A taxibus is a type of bus, where the person pays, for example, £1·30 no matter at what point on the route they get on. If someone gets a taxi, they have exclusive use of it and they will pay what is charged by the meter at the end of the journey. Under a proper scheme, passengers would know that they would definitely get a discount if they shared a taxi. It would not be an icing-on-the-cake situation, where the passenger would pay the same if he or she had got the taxi themselves.

Mr T Clarke: 
That is unfair. If a person is travelling from Belfast to Antrim and knows that, because they are travelling alone, the fare will be £16. Why should the fare be different because the person is sharing that car with someone else? The person would have to share when travelling in a taxibus.

Mrs Watters:
It is quite different. The general rule is that when someone opts to travel by taxi, the members of their party are going to be the only passengers. If someone opts to travel by bus, the deal is that they are sharing with other people and would pay a much cheaper fare.

Mr T Clarke: 
Are you saying that if someone gets into a taxi and there are two passengers in the back, they will not know that they are sharing it?

Mrs Watters:
If there were no control over the sharing of fares, then one would have no way of knowing whether they are going to get ripped off.

Mr T Clarke: 
If it were made clear to the general public, then they would know. I draw a strong parallel between this clause and the one that the Committee discussed earlier. I have nothing against what is being said about taxibuses. However, I am trying to draw a comparison between taxibuses and taxi sharing, where people could be charged different fares.

The Chairperson:
Will no taxibuses be participating in taxi sharing?

Mrs Watters:
Operators may be licensed to provide taxibus services, and they may also want to work in a taxi-sharing scheme. This discussion is likely to get very complicated if we try to think of scenarios in which operators are doing both. However, it should be remembered that if a taxi is operating in a particular mode — for example as a taxibus — then there would be signage display requirements, which would state where the vehicle is going; for example from west Belfast to the city centre. Similarly, if the vehicle were part of a taxi-sharing scheme, it would be clear what scheme it is part of; for example, from Central Station to wherever. Therefore, taxibuses could potentially participate in taxi sharing.

The Chairperson: 
What are the Committee’s views?

Mr T Clarke: 
It was suggested to the Committee that taxibuses should not be allowed to be used as normal taxis, yet the Department’s response is:

“Such a rule would be unfairly restrictive particularly in areas where there are relatively few taxis.”

The inference is that it is acceptable to be restrictive on taxibuses but unfair to be restrictive on taxis.

The Chairperson:
Where are the areas with relatively few taxis? Taxibuses are a predominantly urban feature, are they not?

Mrs Watters:
Taxibuses have been an urban phenomenon in Northern Ireland. However, in the Scottish highlands, for example, they are used in rural areas because although the local population may want a bus service, it may not be economically viable to use a large bus. For example, for journeys between an outlying village and a town, a taxibus might bridge the gap between having a weekly service using a large bus and a daily service using a smaller vehicle. The point being made in the submission was that a vehicle providing a taxibus service should never be used for any other service. That seems to be an overly restrictive measure to put in the Bill. A vehicle being used for taxibus services during the day — with proper signage — should be permitted to be driven at night by someone else for another purpose.

The Chairperson:
That is fine. Is the Committee content?

Members indicated assent.

Mrs Watters: 
I do not think that there are any points that the Committee wants us to return with as regards taxibuses.

Mr Boylan: 
I think that they are fine. [Laughter.] Whatever way one looks at it, they are value for money. I know that Trevor is making a point —

Mr T Clarke: 
I am only using taxibuses to make a point about taxis.

Mr Boylan: 
I know that and totally agree.

Mr Gardiner:
I am inclined to support Trevor, particularly when it comes to taxibuses. If a taxibus sets off from Lurgan to Belfast and a passenger gets in at Moira, which is eight miles down the road, for the sake of fairness, a meter should be fitted to help the driver calculate the lesser fare and allow the passenger to see how that has been done.

Mr T Clarke:
In that case, you are not in agreement with me. In the example I used earlier, when the taxi leaves Belfast —

The Chairperson:
The point that Mr Gardiner was making concurs with what Adele said, which would allow that elbow room and build in flexibility to allow taxis to travel outside zoned or urban areas.

Mr Gardiner:
I am from Upper Bann, and was thinking about travelling from my area into Belfast, rather than coming from Belfast.

The Chairperson:
As you should. Much of our focus has been on Belfast.

Mr Gardiner:
There are six counties in Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:
Is the Committee content with the discussion on clauses 8, 9 and 10?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
We will move to clause 11. No issues have been raised.

Mr McMullan:
That is correct.

The Chairperson:
Presumably, by this stage, the Committee does not have any further issues. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
We are now moving into Part 2 of the Bill, which covers the regulation of taxis. Clause 12 states that a taxi licence is required in order to use a vehicle as a taxi. Contravention of that requirement will result in a fine of £5,000.

The Chairperson:
Is the Committee content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 13 states that:

“The owner of any taxi may apply to the Department for a taxi licence”.

Clause 13(2) is important because it allows the Department to grant a licence in respect of

“(a) taxis of such different classes of use as may be prescribed; and

(b) such different classes of use”.

There has been a lot of talk about one-tier and two-tier systems of use, and I apologise if members have been searching through the Bill for those systems because neither of them is mentioned. Clause 13(2) will allow the Department to license different classes of vehicle. In theory, we could license vehicles as they are now — for public and private hire. However, we will be licensing vehicles as accessible or non-accessible within a single, clear system. Therefore, this is where the one-tier system resides in the Bill.

Clause 13(3) covers another important point. The Department will be able to set out in regulations the suitable type, size and design of taxis. That will give us the power to specify what is meant by an accessible taxi.

A taxi licence will be granted for one year, and, as mentioned earlier in relation to other appeals procedures, appeals will be to the magistrates’ court.

The Chairperson:
Are there any issues?

Mr T Clarke:
Will the Department clarify the last point? Moving to a one-tier system will undoubtedly affect Belfast public-hire taxis, which will still be allowed to use the ranks, but will they also be allowed to tout for other business?

Mrs Watters:
Anyone who is allowed to use a rank will be allowed to pick up fares from the street.

Mr T Clarke:
Thank you.

Mr I McCrea:
If memory serves me correctly, there were concerns about reducing the term of the licence to one year.

Mrs Watters:
The Bill proposes that drivers will be required to renew their licences every three years. Currently, that must be done every five years. We will come to that when we review clause 23, which will be for next week. [Laughter.]

Mr I McCrea:
I am glad you pointed that out.

The Chairperson:
Do you think so Adele? Of course, we would not assume that you are not ready for that. [Laughter.] We move now to clause 23. [Laughter.]

As regards clause 13, we received a suggestion on capping the number of public taxi hire plates and only increasing them in line with business needs. Is there any merit in that or, ultimately, is it down to the market finding its own way through?

Mrs Watters:
It is down to the market finding its own level. It is very easy to get into the taxi industry, and there may well be an oversupply of taxis, although it may not feel like that at peak times. If the number of taxis were capped — and that is becoming less common across the UK — it would put a lot of power into the hands of the taxi industry. The moment it would be decided to raise the cap, taxi drivers would say that that affects the value of their licences. Licences would become tradable and transferable. In the South, licences were worth €130,000 before the industry was deregulated.

Mr T Clarke:
How could a cap be imposed? How would someone bid to become included?

Mrs Watters:
A limit of 11,000 taxis could be set.

Mr T Clarke:
So those who are in, are in?

Mrs Watters:
One would be pulling the ladder up, which is why the industry liked the idea.

The Chairperson:
It is a bit like a pub licence.

Mrs Watters:
Yes.

The Chairperson:
The Committee received evidence that disabled people are being discriminated against. If they phone for a taxi they have to specify that they are disabled. That point was made during some very well articulated evidence from Mr Maguire. How can that situation be dealt with?

Mrs Watters:
Mr Maguire went on to make the point that if all taxis were disabled-accessible nobody would have to say that they needed a taxi that meets their needs. If an operator has a mix of accessible and non-accessible taxis and it does not matter which taxi comes, that is fine. However, if someone needs a wheelchair-accessible taxi, they would have to request that from the operator. It is not a discrimination; it is an indication of the type of service that that person requires, and that an appropriate vehicle needs to be sent.

The Chairperson:
Is there broad agreement on the issues regarding clause 13?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 14 places certain duties on the owners of licensed taxis. An owner will be required to present a taxi for inspection and testing through the Department. The taxi will not be required to be presented on more than three occasions in any one period of 12 months. Owners must report any accidents to their vehicles, particularly if it affects the safety or performance of their vehicle, and they must also report change of ownership and return the licence and the plates. Again, contravention of that will be an offence and incur a fine of £1,000.

The Chairperson:
That brings things more or less into line with what the rest of us do with our own private vehicles.

Mrs Watters:
Statutory off-road notification ( SORN) applies to normal vehicles, and it would apply anyway if the vehicle were destroyed or sold on.

Mr I McCrea:
I know that this question is going into details, but are you talking about any damage to a vehicle? Is it specific to any area, or damage, that could risk someone’s health? Would it apply to any bump?

Mr Laverty:
PSV regulations specify the extent of damage and define the word “bump”. Strictly speaking, any accident should be reported and the vehicle should be taken off the road while it is repaired. It is a matter of standards of service to the public; it is a public-service vehicle.

The Chairperson:
Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 15 deals with the identification of licensed vehicles. The Department will issue whatever identification plates, signs or distinguishing marks it decides to use. Driving a taxi without such identification will be an offence that carries a fine of £1,000. The plates must be exhibited in, “such manner as may be prescribed”. That wording is important because it may be inappropriate to have taxi plates on wedding or funeral cars, for example, and it gives the Department some flexibility in dealing with such circumstances.

The Chairperson:
There is nothing contentious there. Are members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 16 is one of the fundamental clauses in the Bill, and it deals with the regulation of fares. It allows the Department to set the maximum rates and fares to be charged for the hire of a taxi, and it will be an offence for a taxi to charge more than the maximum fare.

The Chairperson:
The Committee Clerk has just pointed out to me that the General Consumer Council has raised some issues about the clause. Presumably, the Department will bring the General Consumer Council’s recommendations back to the Committee.

Mrs Watters:
Yes.

Mr T Clarke:
I recall that there was talk about a maximum fare. I never use taxis, but does that refer to taxis that have a set fare for a journey before it begins?

Mrs Watters:
That would be what people refer to as the minimum fare or the flag-fall fare.

Mr Clarke:
OK. What is the maximum fare that was referred to?

Mrs Watters:
There might be a tariff that could be tailored for different times of the day. For example, the maximum initial charge for a particular journey could be £2∙50, with a further charge of £1 per mile thereafter.

The Chairperson:
Sorry, do you mean that £2∙50 would be the least that they could charge?

Mrs Watters:
No, £2∙50 would be —

Mr T Clarke:
Is that the minimum charge?

Mrs Watters: 
It would be the maximum initial charge.

The Chairperson:
The maximum —

Mrs Watters:
It is the maximum minimum charge.

The Chairperson:
Do you mean the maximum basic charge?

Mrs Watters:
Yes. When a person gets into the taxi and the driver turns on the meter, that fare would be displayed.

The Chairperson:
Therefore, that fare cannot go any higher before the taxi sets of?

Mrs Watters:
Yes.

Mr T Clarke:
Are we talking about the maximum fare?

Mrs Watters:
What we are saying is that when the Department sets fares, it —

The Chairperson:
It is the maximum minimum charge.

Mrs Watters:
Yes. It is the maximum minimum charge.

Mr T Clarke:
Is that where the word “maximum” is coming from?

Mrs Watters:
The Department would set out fares and charges, which would show the most that a taxi could charge. We would not penalise anybody for wishing to charge less, for example by giving students or pensioners a discount.

Mr T Clarke:
I cannot grasp that; the wording does not seem right. It is a minimum fare. Could we not give it a different name?

Mrs Watters:
“Initial charge” might be a more useful term. There are people in the taxi industry who say that there should be a minimum charge. I am not sure whether they mean that there should be an initial fare or that, whatever the initial fare is, nobody should be able to undercut it.

Mr T Clarke:
Could we say that there would be a standard charge to a maximum of such and such, or that a standard charge should not exceed a certain sum?

The Chairperson:
Or, perhaps we could say that the initial fare shall be no greater than an agreed amount?

Mr T Clarke:
Yes.

Mrs Watters:
There is a concern in some parts of Northern Ireland — for example, in Derry/Londonderry — where some drivers say that operators are charging uneconomic fares. Ultimately, the drivers suffer because fares are their income, and they want to be guaranteed at least £3 for every journey.

Mr T Clarke:
Some of them have referred to a maximum fare.

Mr I McCrea:
Will meters be set to the highest possible minimum fare? Some drivers have asked that the highest possible charge for the minimum fare is set.

Mrs Watters:
There are technical details with regard to the calibration of meters.

The Chairperson:
The Committee is confused about the wording, and there appears to be a need to tighten the precision of the wording in order to ensure that it is not subject to other interpretations.

Mr Laverty:
The Republic of Ireland’s Taxi Regulation Act 2003 provides for maximum fares. The Committee may be aware that, in September 2006, the Republic introduced a national taxi fare across the industry on the basis of the maximum fare described in the Act.

The Chairperson:
That is precisely the issue under discussion. Perhaps there is an appropriate form of words from which we can learn in the Act.

Mr Gardiner:
I believe that it is the “maximum minimum” bit that is confusing. I understand where you are coming from but —

Mrs Watters:
The words “maximum minimum” do not appear in the legislation. There is no reference in the legislation to an initial charge.

Mr Gardiner:
Joe Public will not understand that. If members are confused, how are the public supposed to understand it? Words must be selected that will convey the message.

Mr T Clarke:
I understand the term. It was the industry that did not understand it. When drivers gave evidence to the Committee, they referred to minimums and maximums.

Being from a rural area, I know that there is no minimum charge when someone gets into a taxi. I am concerned that there should be a mandatory maximum initial charge.

Mrs Watters:
The Bill’s provisions would not make that mandatory, although some people in the industry would like it to be.

Mr T Clarke:
We need to agree a form of words that would mean that the minimum fare could not exceed a certain sum of money. People in the countryside, particularly the elderly, depend on taxis to take them on short journeys. Where I live, there is a charge of £2∙50 from outside the town. However, if a senior citizen is charged £2∙50 before they are even taken down the street, the eventual fare will be too expensive.

Mrs Watters:
Often the initial charge will cover the entire journey because the meter does not start the minute that the taxi moves off. Sometimes, the initial charge will include a certain distance.

Mr Laverty:
When the meter is engaged, the minimum fare shows up automatically.

Mrs Watters:
That is not a requirement of the Bill.

The Chairperson:
In order to reflect the Committee’s views, can the wording be tightened up in order to make it more precise and clear?

Mr I McCrea:
Is it the Department or the individual driver who sets the tariff on meters?

Mr Laverty:
Normally, each taximeter is calibrated.

The Chairperson:
That matter will come up when we discuss taximeters during our consideration of clause 18. The Committee is seeking further clarification on clause 17. Are Members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
As you rightly pointed out, Mr Chairman, clause 18 is linked to fares. It will be a requirement for all taxis to have a taximeter and a receipt printer, and it will be an offence if a taxi is not fitted with those devices. The Department has the power to regulate the testing, sealing and operation of taximeters, the display of tariffs and the details that must be included on receipts.

The Chairperson:
Are there any questions?

Mr I McCrea:
It should be compulsory to issue receipts on request. In evidence to the Committee, it was clear that people were being overcharged. Therefore there should be a mechanism whereby passengers who ask for a receipt should get one. That would be evidence of whether they had been charged an amount between the recommended minimum and maximum fares.

Mrs Watters:
Should receipts be provided only on request, rather than there always being an expectation that they will be issued, or are you saying that the onus should be on the driver to provide receipts rather than on the passenger having to ask?

Mr I McCrea:
I do not mind not getting a receipt. However, if I wanted one, I would like to be able to get it.

Mr McMullan:
The legislation covers that.

Mr I McCrea:
I am happy to take it to mean that everyone will get receipts.

Mrs Watters:
If every driver is required to have a receipt printer, the provision of receipts becomes less of an issue. The main thing is that drivers have the mechanism to create receipts.

Mr I McCrea:
There would be a concern about the cost of the receipt printers to the taxi drivers.

The Chairperson:
Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 19 states that each taxi may carry a prescribed number of passengers, and that is worked out in the regulations. To carry a greater number of passengers means a £1000 fine.

The Chairperson:
Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McMullan:
Clause 20 sets out the Department’s regulatory powers. There has been much talk about the Taxis Bill being an enabling Bill, and this is the classic enabling clause. Clause 20(1) states that the Department can make general regulations relating to taxis. Clause 20(2) allows the Department to regulate on a wide range of issues. Some provisions look to the future, such as regulating the colour of taxis — and I do not expect to see yellow taxis on the streets in Northern Ireland any time soon. The clause simply details issues on which the Department may regulate.

The Chairperson:
Are there any issues?

Mr T Clarke:
I want to be clear about how clause 20 will work when the Bill is passed. I am not being facetious but should the Department decide to paint all the taxis yellow, how would it implement that decision? That is simply an example. The same applies to other issues, but you will kill my curiosity by answering that question.

Mr McMullan:
The general procedure is the same as for making any regulation. We would consult with the industry, the Committee and other stakeholders before deciding whether the regulation is sensible.

Mr T Clarke:
Would any new regulations become amendments to the Bill?

Mr McMullan:
No. They would be made as separate sets of regulations that will be sent to this Committee to agree.

Mr T Clarke:
Do not take this the wrong way, but does clause 20 give you a clean brush to do what you want?

Mrs Watters:
No. Any changes require regulations. We would have to consult and carry out a regulatory impact assessment that we would share with the Committee.

Mr Gallagher:
That is important to know.

The Chairperson:
Adele, at the last meeting, an issue with respect to clause 20(2)(c) cropped up.

Mrs Watters:
Yes. The taxi-marshal proposals.

The Chairperson:
It was put to you then that a little more thought needs to be put into that concept to reflect the views of the Committee that someone could be standing at the kerb with absolutely no powers to do anything. The other aspect of that was that there was an overlap between any potential enforcement powers that may, or may not, be there, and lack of clarity on what the role of a marshal might be in certain circumstances, as opposed to the enforcement officers. To be honest, I am not a wild pile wiser after last week.

Can you come back to the Committee with some detail on how you envisage the taxi-marshal proposals being taken forward?

Mrs Watters:
OK.

The Chairperson:
Thanks for that. With that built in, can we agree, with that caveat, clause 20?

Mr Boylan:
I want to raise the issue of seat belts. Some taxis have flip-down seats that do not have seat belts. I was thinking about that from the point of view of children using them.

Mrs Watters:
The provision for seat belts in taxis is included in the legislation for seat belts in other vehicles, so that is not a Taxi-Bill issue directly, because it is already provided for. Recognition is taken of the fact that because of the nature of the journeys, not all taxis can be expected to have child seats or restraints available. Certainly, where restraints or seats are available, they must be used.

The Chairperson:
Can we move to clause 21?

Mr McMullan:
There is currently an anomaly between the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and DOE with regard to taxi ranks. DRD makes the policy for taxi ranks, but the legislative function rests with DOE. Clause 21 places the legislative function with DRD. An opportunity will arise, when total responsibility for taxi ranks moves over to DRD, to use the traffic attendants in an enforcement manner. We recommend that the traffic attendants should enforce the taxi regulation Order, which means that they will provide enforcement for incorrect parking at ranks and prescribe parking distances from ranks, etc. DOE can work out that transfer; it will require a small consequential amendment to a piece of DRD legislation.

The Chairperson:
It says in the paper that you supplied on the proposed amendments to the Taxis Bill that:

“In the Department’s view, it would not be appropriate to extend the powers of traffic attendants to include the full range of enforcement powers.”

If they will not have the full range, what range will they have?

Mr McMullan:
There is a distinction there in that the traffic attendants would not have any enforcement powers over the licensing of taxis. Their power would be confined to parking infringements at ranks. Their enforcement powers could be used, but only in relation to the parking of vehicles.

Mr T Clarke:
Could that be clarified, because it is a bit of a grey area? I understand why they cannot have full enforcement powers — well I do and I do not, because we need a large degree of help with enforcement.

The Chairperson:
I am not entirely sure that the first point squares with the second. Unless I am reading it wrong, it says:

“In future, DRD will make by means of ‘Taxi Regulation Order’….”

and then:

“DOE and DRD agree that it would be appropriate for traffic attendants to be able to enforce such regulation orders” .

Mrs Watters:
The second sentence needs to come out. That is wrong.

“transfers the legislative function by making taxi stands from DOE to DRD by means of ‘Taxi Regulation Orders’.”

The Chairperson:
Can we park clause 21 and get clarification on that. We can revisit it later. We will probably begin at clause 21/22 at our next session.

We are agreed that clause 21 needs further clarification? We have exhausted most of the matters that we wanted to address on the Taxis Bill today — unless anyone wants to ask another question.

Mr T Clarke:
No, thank you.

The Chairperson:
I thank members, and I thank Bill, Adele and John for giving us their time today. We will see you next week.

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