Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 27 September 2007

Taxis Bill: Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

27 September 2007

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

Witnesses: 
Ms Barbara Fleming ) Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee
Mr Michael Lorimer )

Mr Richard Daniels ) London Taxis International
Mr Andrew Overton )

Mr Sean Smyth ) T&G Section of Unite

Mr James Beckett ) Transport and General Workers’ Union
Mr James Matier )

Mr Anthony McCloskey ) George Best Belfast City Airport Taxi Rank

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):

Ms Fleming and Mr Lorimer, you are very welcome. The Committee tries to keep these evidence sessions as informal as possible, and they focus on legislation. Witnesses are invited to take between 10 and 15 minutes to make their submissions. The Committee has your written submissions; if there are aspects of those that you want to emphasise particularly, or other issues that you want to raise, please feel free to do so.

Mr Michael Lorimer (Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee):

Thank you, Mr Chairperson. I will set out the position of the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (IMTAC) on the Taxis Bill, and Barbara Fleming will then speak on the experiences of disabled people who use taxis.

IMTAC is the main source of advice to Government — and others — on transport issues for disabled and older people. It is sponsored by the Department for Regional Development to perform that function. IMTAC works towards an inclusive transport system on the basis that disabled people should have access to the same goods and services as everyone else, which is current Government policy. There should be a move to change the transport system from one of segregation to one of inclusivity.

Taxis are a key service for disabled people. Before I go into detail, I wish to record that, for many years, taxis have provided a vital service for disabled people; taxi drivers provide a door-to-door service, and many drivers go the extra distance to help disabled people — for example, by carrying shopping into passengers’ homes. Taxis are often available when other transport is not. Historically, because of the inaccessibility of public transport, taxis have often been the only available source of transport for some disabled people.

Despite that, disabled people have had extreme problems using taxis. I will highlight some of those as a background to IMTAC’s position on the Taxis Bill. The number of taxis suitable for disabled people is low, including wheelchair-accessible taxis. There is a particular problem outside Belfast; however, the problem of access to those taxis in Belfast is huge.

There is a lack of availability of taxis at the times when disabled people want to travel. Many vehicles that are wheelchair accessible — again, particularly outside Belfast — are hired by Departments for home-to-school transport. Therefore, disabled people are restricted in the times that they can travel.

To illustrate this point, we had a meeting with one of the direct rule Ministers at Stormont Castle around a year and a half ago, and we had to be there at 4.00 pm. One of our members is disabled, and, because of school transport, the only time that a taxi could take him was around 12.00 noon. Therefore, he was at Stormont three hours before the meeting and had to hang around for an hour afterwards, and he had to pay £70 for the privilege. His journey was from Bangor to Stormont. Those are the type of issues that disabled people face.

We also have real concerns about vehicle standards. Again, London-style taxis are being used in Belfast, and standards are set for those vehicles, and they are safe. However, we have grave concerns about the safety of some of the vehicles outside Belfast that purport to be accessible vehicles. Many of them are van conversions, and we have grave concerns about whether the people being transported in them are safe.

Staff attitudes are a big issue for disabled people. That can permeate in a number of ways. A common problem is that disabled people are refused taxis. Once they say that they are wheelchair users or are disabled, the answer from the taxi firm is that it does not carry disabled people. There are also issues around language. Basically, disabled people are often treated with lack of dignity by taxi drivers.

Last week, I had a case in Dungannon in which a young girl being transported to school by taxi was verbally abused by the taxi driver. The disappointing aspect of that case was that when the parents complained to the Department of Education, they were told that unless the daughter could prove it, the Department would do nothing about the matter. Attitudes are a big issue for disabled people.

The final issue is the cost of services. There is a premium to be paid, particularly if you are a wheelchair user and need an accessible taxi, on many services in Belfast, and there is clear evidence of extreme discrimination as regards charging.

A man from Derry spoke to me yesterday about his mother, who was dying of cancer. In the last weeks of her life, she had to use a wheelchair and needed to travel a quarter of a mile. She had to use an accessible taxi and was charged £70 for the privilege of doing so. There is a lot of anger among disabled people about charges for wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

IMTAC broadly supports the Taxis Bill. The Department has sought to consult with the taxi trade, taxi users and stakeholders. In particular, it has sought to be proactive in gauging the views of disabled people and older people. IMTAC facilitated several public meetings in Derry and Belfast, and there were focus group meetings comprising disabled people in places such as Dungannon. The Department got real first-hand accounts from disabled people about the issues that they faced when using taxis. There were people attending who were blind, had learning disabilities, were deaf, were wheelchair users and those who had other impairments.

The Department has clearly listened to the views of users as well as those in the trade and has come up with a balanced approach on the requirements of taxi users and operators. I would like to stress that the solution is for all of Northern Ireland. It is not a solution for the centre of Belfast, where much of the focus on these issues tends to be.

There is much debate about the tiered systems. There is a good deal of merit in having a one-tier system, the reason being that the only place where the current two-tier system makes a difference is in Belfast, where there are public- and private-hire vehicles.

The public-hire system does not work for disabled people. It may be that there are 450 accessible taxis available from ranks, but the message that we hear from disabled people is that they cannot access those services. The public-hire sector has not done enough to engage and promote its services to disabled people. Why is there no contact or dispatch service so that disabled people can phone to access those vehicles? We also have anecdotal evidence of disabled people trying to access taxis at ranks, only to be told that those vehicles do not accommodate wheelchairs.

There are difficult issues around the availability of the public-hire fleet in Belfast. I know of very few disabled people who use public-hire taxis in Belfast. Those who do use taxis do so on a private-hire basis. Predominantly, the wheelchair users to whom I have spoken use the main private-hire operators in Belfast: Value Cabs, fonaCAB, and so on.

There are difficulties with the current two-tier system for disabled people in Belfast. Outside Belfast, the one-tier system is the only one that addresses accessibility issues. In a two-tier system, public-hire taxis will migrate into the private-hire sector, and accessibility issues would not be addressed. The one-tier system is crucial to increasing the number of taxis that are accessible to disabled people. There is no point in having 450 accessible taxis if they are not available to disabled people.

We support operator licensing, and we particularly support the link between operator licensing and accessible vehicles. Accessibility of vehicles should be tied to operator licensing. We support the link between accessibility and the provision of taxis at ranks. We stress that that should apply to all ranks.

One big issue that was identified early in the review process is taxi provision at Belfast International Airport, the main point of entry for visitors to this country. There are very few accessible vehicles there, and that sends out a message to visitors that we do not take seriously the requirements of disabled visitors. We understand that that is not part of the contract, but contracts can stipulate levels of accessibility, and they should. Obviously, other taxi ranks should also connect to the transport system.

We support the measures relating to fares, particularly the provision for a maximum fare. That will not end discriminatory charging, but it will end the extreme discrimination encountered by some disabled people. Some have been charged as much as £70 for a quarter-of-a-mile journey. A maximum fare will end that type of discrimination. We support the use of taximeters; a clear display of fares will give all passengers greater confidence in the use of taxis.

We support proposals to give the Department powers to prescribe driver training. That is important. Unless we challenge the attitudes of some drivers, disabled people will not be able to access taxis. Better training of drivers and driver development will bring benefits to the taxi system in general, and that should be available to drivers with disabilities. We do not want to discriminate against drivers with, for example, learning disabilities.

We want vehicle standards to be addressed; people need vehicles that are safe. The Department should establish vehicle accessibility standards throughout Northern Ireland. We are assured that the Bill includes the powers for the Department to do that. As it stands, the Taxis Bill will improve standards for all consumers, particularly for consumers with disabilities.

Other transport services, both large and small, have had to become accessible because of legislation and Government policy, as have service providers such as hairdressers and café proprietors. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has affected all such businesses. We have seen massive changes to public transport. Taxis have been left behind somewhat, and that must be addressed. It is essential that the powers in the Taxis Bill that change how taxis are regulated are not watered down any further.

I will hand over to Barbara Fleming, who has been an IMTAC member for eight years and has been a taxi user for a long time. She is connected to nearly every disability group in Belfast, so she has talked to many people about their experiences of using taxis.

Ms Barbara Fleming (Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee):

I will switch myself off the loop because I cannot stand my own voice. [ Laughter.] As Michael said, I am not speaking just on behalf of myself; I have talked to many disabled people across the board. For example, I am heavily involved in 18 organisations; I am the principal chairperson of the board of Open Arts, which serves more than 300 disabled people; and I am the secretary of the Northern Ireland Neurological Charities Alliance (NINCA), which is an alliance of all the charities that support people with neurological conditions. Despite being a qualified interpreter, I am hard of hearing, so I serve on a rota basis as chairperson of the regional division of the British Deaf Association.

I am representing disabled people with every conceivable impairment, including the deaf sign-language-using community. Everyone to whom I have spoken has had the same experiences as I have had, so when I speak for myself, I am speaking for them as well; not just wheelchair users but people with mental-health issues, visual impairments or people like me who have multiple impairments. I cannot tell you how excited we are about the Taxis Bill, because it is a giant leap forward in resolving many of the issues that Michael has addressed. It is especially exciting for disabled people in rural areas, where it is next to impossible to get a taxi. The lack of taxis means that we have to go with what is available, which has led to exploitation and attitudinal difficulties that disabled people have experienced.

For example, I represented a friend whose husband was the first deaf chairperson of the bowling club on the Malone Road. I know how much taxis cost; it amounts to a fare and a half, and there is also a minimum charge. I had worked out that the taxi from my home would cost me about £15 either way. I was charged £35 one way, and so had no money to get home. I could not tell my friend, because I was there to support her and did not want to upset her. I cannot explain to you what that did to me physically as well, because of my heart condition. I had to get through that night without knowing how I was going to get home.

I have had taxi drivers shout at me and swear at me. I have had to sit cramped; I have been shoved into a taxi that I was told was accessible and have had to sit doubled-over because I am too tall. My chair reclines backwards and has to be put into that position, forcing me to bend over in agony. I have been charged extortionate rates for those privileges.

Why do I not complain about that treatment or report it? The answer is simply because the firm would refuse to take me; therefore, I am not in a position to complain. A colleague and I were asked to talk about this on the radio, but we could not — if we did, we would no longer have a taxi service to use. There is only one main taxi service in Belfast that I can use. There have been only two journeys in the past 11 years during which I have not been exploited. As a wheelchair user, one really depends on the taxi drivers. When the taxi driver that I mentioned earlier charged me £35, I told him that that was not was the meter said, and he simply cleared the meter. He was a big man, and, as a woman, what could I have done? I did not want to make a big scene and alert people to the situation, because I was there as a support and I did not want to worry or stress anyone.

On Monday evening, a friend of mine booked a taxi to travel to an Open Arts event. She explained to the driver that she was travelling with another wheelchair user with whom she lived. However, she could not get into the taxi because it was too high. She was a wheelchair user, but she could transfer from the wheelchair into the car, so the taxi driver just thought she was being awkward. When she transferred to the backseat, the driver shouted at her. He folded up her chair and just set it down without securing it, meaning that the chair fell on top of her and injured her knee.

On a few occasions, I have tried to get a taxi at a rank. I have been ignored, but, thankfully, on two occasions, I was recognised by a taxi driver from a firm that had transported me a couple of times, and he said that he would take me. I had to wait until his taxi came down the queue at the rank, and then I knew that I was going to get home.

Like Michael, other people have told me that they have been refused by a taxi driver. The drivers have said that they are sorry, but they do not transport disabled people. Sometimes drivers have said that their taxis are not accessible when it is very obvious that they are accessible. In some ways, taxi drivers are a bit fearful, or perhaps they do not know how to work the ramps. Again, the Bill is a giant step forward because it means that training will be provided that will tackle that fear. Equality training is not like disability-awareness training: it does exactly what it says. It enables people to see disabled people as they are: members of the public and a very important part of society. We are contributors. If we do nothing else, we supply a vast amount of employment; if disabled people are taken out of society, it will collapse, and a lot of people would be unemployed.

As members of the public, we have the right to travel as other people do. Not only that, our money is worth the same as anyone else’s. If a driver makes a taxi wheelchair accessible, wheelchairs users will get in it and will pay. Setting a maximum rate will not mean that taxi drivers will be poverty-stricken. They will have more clients, especially when the one-tier system comes into effect and there are more accessible taxis. There are many disabled people in rural areas who cannot access any form of transport whatsoever; they are just waiting to use this service. Therefore, it will pay in the long run. If the system is established correctly, the cost of setting it up will be recouped in fares that drivers receive from the increased number of clients using the service. It will go a long way.

For disabled people who are totally dependent on others, getting out and about will have a knock-on effect in many areas. The Bill will cut down on abuse and the exploitation of them as people. It will open up opportunities for friendships, employment, and so much more than I have time to talk about today. You have no idea about the knock-on effect that the proposed legislation will have on the disabled community and the deaf community in Northern Ireland.

I have deaf friends who have been charged a ridiculous amount of money for taxi journeys. They do not have a mobility impairment, but because they are deaf, speak with a monotone voice and are difficult to make out, they are classed as having a learning difficulty. Consequently, they are charged an extortionate amount for their taxi journeys. Unfortunately, they are afraid to complain.

People with learning difficulties and mental-health difficulties have been exploited. I feel that the Bill will resolve many of those problems. It will supply more taxis, so it will even out the ground a bit more by providing more competition. The training will enable taxi drivers to interact with disabled people and other members of the public, including older people. Overall, I think it is a very positive step.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for that, Barbara. I am sure that, like other Committee members, I am shocked to hear, at first hand, people’s experience of that type of exploitation, unacceptable practice and behaviour. It provides a human focus on why we should be here today and dealing with the Taxis Bill. Thank you for your evidence.

Mr Weir:

First, thank you for your presentation. If we hear no other evidence, the evidence that you have given today shows, at least, the need for some degree of reform of the current system to ensure that disabled people are put on a level playing field with everyone else. You highlighted, principally from your own experiences, a number of problems that wheelchair users, in particular, have with the current system and the level of exploitation that they suffer. You touched on the deaf community as well. Do you have any other information, from your own experience, of the levels or types of discrimination or exploitation that any other disabled groups are suffering?

As you have said, wheelchair users are vulnerable to exploitation. Similarly, a deaf person’s voice may make them vulnerable to exploitation. Could you give us any information on the impact on any of the other disabled groups?

Ms Fleming:

Certainly. I have a few colleagues and friends who have a visual impairment and who have guide dogs. There have been occasions when a taxi driver has said that he could not carry a guide dog in his taxi. Although the new policy has helped in some ways, there was an incident, a couple of weeks ago, when a taxi driver said that he could not carry a guide dog in his taxi because he was allergic to dogs.

A married couple, who each have a dog, because the man works and the woman is a housewife, had to give up one of their dogs. The taxi could have carried two dogs but the driver, nevertheless, refused to carry both. That left one person at a disadvantage. In that case, the woman gave up her dog because her husband needed to travel by taxi. That left the woman at a disadvantage because she did not know how she was going to get into the building at the end of the journey. Thankfully, it was arranged by mobile phone that someone would wait for her at the other end.

Mr Lorimer:

Blind people who do not use guide dogs have also expressed concerns about drivers who treat blind people as stupid and take them on the scenic route, thereby building up a healthy fare. That is a fairly common experience for blind people. People with mobility impairments who are not wheelchair users have problems accessing saloon taxis.

Earlier, we talked about vehicle accessibility: the focus tends to be on wheelchair users but we must look at the standards of vehicle accessibility for a broad range of people, including those with walking difficulties. For instance, fitting a swivel seat in a saloon vehicle can make it much more accessible to people with a walking difficulty. There are taxi accessibility issues for disabled people apart from wheelchair users.

Mr A Maskey:

Thank you for your illuminating presentations. In your written presentation, you said that you had held meetings with taxi drivers’ representatives and others in the trade at which you addressed areas of common concern, such as enforcement and accessible vehicle standards. Was there clear dissent between you and the taxi operators on any issue? Was there anything that you did not agree on that may or may not be covered by the Taxis Bill?

Mr Lorimer:

The vehicle standards favoured by taxi operators and those favoured by disabled people differ. Ideally, we want a standard of vehicle that everyone can access. However, that aspiration may not be achievable, as we must be realistic about the nature of the industry and the costs of developing such a vehicle.

There are issues about Belfast public-hire taxis, and there has been a great deal of publicity about the Bill affecting taxi accessibility for disabled people. We said in strong terms that that will not be the case, because, at present, disabled people cannot access many Belfast public-hire vehicles. It is a bone of contention for us that some representatives of the public-hire sector say that they are the defenders of disabled people.

We also want a higher percentage of fleets to be of a disabled-access standard, whereas the taxi industry probably wants a lower percentage; but that is life. We will have to compromise on that as much as the taxi trade in the outcome of the Bill.

There are differences, but there is common ground as well. We share Belfast public-hire representatives’ concerns about enforcement and vehicle standards, and we would like to see those issues addressed.

Mr Ford:

Thank you both for your presentations. Your written submission highlights several issues that will come up only in secondary legislation, such as the percentage of fleets that should be disabled-accessible. You both talked about the attitude of taxi drivers and training. Should training be compulsory for all drivers or solely for new drivers?

Mr Lorimer:

We would prefer that all drivers go through some kind of disability equality training, but some already have. In the past, as the disabled persons’ Transport Advisory Committee, we were connected with Disability Action and we trained taxi drivers, so there are 300 to 400 drivers who have done that training. There must be flexibility in recognising that some drivers have already undertaken training, but, ideally, we would like all drivers to go through periodic refresher training, because issues change.

Mr Boylan:

Thank you both for your presentations. Over the past weeks, the Committee has heard from taxi drivers, so it is good to hear the customers’ perspective, and that is all part of social inclusion.

You mentioned a one-tier system in rural areas. Is accessibility even more difficult there?

Ms Fleming:

Very much so.

Mr Boylan:

Can you clarify the issues?

Mr Lorimer:

There are fewer accessible vehicles outside Belfast. Saloon taxis are predominantly used in rural areas. Since there are no standards for those vehicles, many vehicles in rural areas are van conversions that have been done by local firms, and that presents serious safety concerns. Taxi firms in rural areas tend to do a lot of work for Government agencies, such as ferrying patients to medical appointments and providing home-to-school transport, so their vehicles are not readily available to disabled people in any case.

Therefore, they are not available to disabled people anyway. Furthermore, because there are so few of them, companies can charge whatever the heck they want for the use of those vehicles by disabled people. The low number of accessible vehicles is a huge problem in rural areas. Imtac has received a lot of feedback about the absence of any other form of transport in rural areas from older people and disabled people who rely on taxis.

Mr Boylan:

It is hoped that the Bill will deal with that problem.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for giving your time to attend the meeting. It is an important matter, and you have made compelling arguments. I am sure that you have gathered that from the members’ comments.

Mr Sean Smyth (T&G Section of Unite):

I am Sean Smyth of the T&G section of Unite. There appears to be an administrative error on the agenda. Representatives from London Taxis International (LTI Vehicles), which manufactures London-type taxis, are present. LTI and I would like to address the Committee as one group. Afterwards, Mr Beckett and Mr Matier, as the T&G, will address the Committee.

The Chairperson:

That is permissible if you can compact your presentation into ten or fifteen minutes. Provision has been made for several people to speak. Others must be included in the schedule.

Mr Smyth:

We are on the agenda twice.

The Chairperson:

I have not seen the notification to which you refer.

Mr Smyth:

I refer to today’s agenda, on which we appear twice. We are referred to first as Unite and then as the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). If Mr Chairman agrees, I will speak first on behalf of LTI. Afterwards, my colleagues will address the Committee.

The Chairperson:

Mr Smyth, can you clarify that you are with the union, Unite, and your colleagues are with the TGWU?

Mr Smyth:

TGWU and Unite are now one union. TGWU merged with Amicus, which is now the T&G section of Unite.

The Chairperson:

I see — sorry about that.

The Committee Clerk:

The confusion has arisen because the Committee received two submissions, rather than just one.

Mr Smyth:

That is quite possible. I am aware that the Committee is under time constraints. Therefore, rather than drag out the matter, LTI Vehicles and I shall address the Committee for fifteen minutes.

The Chairperson:

Can you clarify for the Committee who LTI Vehicles is?

Mr Smyth:

LTI Vehicles manufactures the London-type taxis that are well known throughout the world. Its representatives are present to voice the concerns of its customers.

The Chairperson:

The Committee has not received a submission from LTI Vehicles.

Mr Smyth:

We have put forward a joint submission.

The Chairperson:

The Committee has not received a submission from LTI Vehicles for today’s meeting. Today’s agenda includes Unite and the TGWU.

Mr Smyth:

As part of my presentation, may I call LTI Vehicles to give a detailed response on —

The Chairperson:

The Committee’s agenda is to discuss the submission that it has received and all members have read. The Committee has received a submission from TGWU, which is also on the agenda. Clearly, any submission that may have been made by LTI Vehicles is not on the agenda. That may be for another occasion.

Mr Boylan:

Is the submission from LTI Vehicles incorporated in Unite’s submission?

The Chairperson:

No.

Mr James Beckett (Transport and General Workers’ Union):

Mr Chairman, perhaps I could clear up the matter.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps you could indicate who you are.

Mr Beckett:

I am James Beckett of T&G. I was told by — (inaudible) — Mr Overton, who is very busy.

Mr Overton asked me to make his presentation for him.

The Chairperson:

Just for clarification, because there may be people here who have travelled a considerable distance, and we have little time, are you saying that the other company should make part of its submission in your allotted 15 minutes?

Mr Smyth:

Yes. I imagine that we will take no more than five to seven minutes each. Then we will take questions.

The Chairperson:

I will limit you to 15 minutes. Bear in mind that the Committee has your submissions, so if you want to curtail your presentation, that is up to you. We have the submissions in front of us, although you might want to emphasise aspects of them to the Committee. If the representatives of LTI Vehicles wish to speak, they will have five minutes each. I understand that they have come all the way from London.

Mr Smyth:

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to speak on this emotive subject. As we heard during the previous submissions, there is a great deal wrong with the taxi industry. I am a regional industrial organiser with Unite, with responsibilities for transport that include representing 2,000 bus drivers in Translink. For the past 12 months or more, I have been trying to organise public-hire taxi drivers in Belfast.

Unite believes in striving for a fully inclusive public-transport service for the whole of Northern Ireland, not just Belfast. After consulting its members in the taxi industry — Unite represents some 30% of the public-hire taxi drivers in Belfast — it put forward nine proposals for a root-and-branch reform of the industry. The industry must be pruned hard and re-grown to develop the affordable, safe, accessible taxi service that everyone wants for the whole of Northern Ireland.

Unite entirely supports the Department’s endeavours to rectify the taxi industry. I am a taxi user, and I too have been ripped off. We want to stop people being charged £40 to travel to Bangor at a certain time of night, for example. However, it will not be easy to change that without changing the very foundations of the industry, as I intend to show the Committee.

It is difficult to argue against the balanced and reasonable expectations of taxi users who want a higher-quality taxi service that has the flexibility to adopt new ways of thinking and working in order to provide that service. However, those ideas must be balanced against economic realities and must allow those who work in the industry to make a reasonable return on their considerable investment.

Although Unite agrees with most of the points raised, it has serious concerns about certain issues. There are approximately 450 public-hire taxi drivers in Belfast who enjoy a two-tier system. As the Committee will have learned, another two-tier system operates outside Belfast between town and country taxi services. In the country, there are private operators, and the Committee will know about Belfast’s two-tier system.

Most of our disabled-accessible vehicles are of the London Taxi type. The newer models can cost more than £30,000, which is a large investment for the taxi driver. If the system were changed, as proposed, it would be to the detriment of public-hire taxi drivers. I will explain that as I go on. It would lower the number of accessible taxis in Belfast. Rather than reduce, we want to expand the number of accessible taxis outside Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. Unite believes that its proposals will do that.

We oppose the delimitation of public taxis. My union also represents 4,000 cabbies in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Southampton; it has vast experience of organising public-hire taxis in those areas. We must keep the specialised conditions under which public-hire taxis operate. That is the only way of making the industry viable. We propose that the number of public-hire taxis operating, not only in Belfast but in the whole of Northern Ireland, should come under the constraints and control of the Department of the Environment. The Department should allocate plates for public-hire taxis according to need. The number of taxis would be increased so that the availability of taxis would grow in accordance with the expansion of a town or city.

There are major problems with accessibility. If I were to buy a new taxi tomorrow morning, I would have to wait two to four weeks to get it tested. I would then have to wait a further four to six weeks to get the plate issued: the vehicle cannot operate without a plate. We propose that the driver be given a plate on the day that he receives his licence and that that plate would go on any vehicle that the driver bought. On the day that the driver retired from the service, his plate would not be sold but returned to the Department. Therefore, if I were to upgrade my vehicle after three years, I could transfer my plate immediately after the vehicle had passed its test. At present, a driver can spend £30,000 on a vehicle and then be unable to work for four weeks. That is expensive for a driver and cannot be maintained. Changes in the plating system would alleviate the lack of vehicles on the roads.

We support the proposals requiring all taxis to have taximeters. However, rather than setting a maximum fare for all taxis, it would be better to have a uniform, single rate that would vary at different times of day. Getting people home from nightclubs at the peak times between midnight and 4.00 am on Friday and Saturday nights is a major problem. We suggest that fares be adjusted to cope with that.

If the two-tier system is kept in Belfast, the city should have a limit. If a driver was required to operate outside that limit, a penalty fare would be incurred, of which the passengers would be aware. All fares would be set in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, the Consumer Council and non-governmental organisations, such as ourselves. That way, the customer would know exactly what had been charged and why they had been charged. People would know that the fare from Belfast city centre to Bangor town centre, for example, was £20. They would not be charged £40 because the fare would be in black and white. That would reduce the activities of rip-off merchants and eventually stop them. More easily identifiable plates would enable the culprits to be more easily identified. I will return to the issue of plates later, but I will press on as I know that the Committee is pushed for time.

The Unite proposal would ensure that Belfast and Northern Ireland would have a first-class public-hire taxi service that would be fully integrated with all other forms of public transport. From arrival to departure, people would have access to reasonably priced, accessible public transport. Achieving that would be a first for any city in the European Union; we would be setting standards instead of playing catch-up. Restrictions on the number of licence plates would enable drivers to work an average working week, instead of having to work excessive hours.

Drivers in Belfast work in circuits on a radio system.

Drivers pay between £100 and £110 a week to rent their radio systems. If they go on holiday or are on sick leave, they must continue to pay the operator or they will lose their radios. Unfortunately, some people coming into the taxi industry do not have the finances to buy a cab, so some operators rent cabs to them. Therefore, those drivers must pay for cab rental, radio rental and diesel, and they must make more than £350 a week before they can earn a shilling.

Many drivers work more than 90 hours a week to earn a living, and the Bill does not address that. It is dangerous to work such hours, and drivers have caused crashes by falling asleep at the wheel, but those crashes have been put down to accidents. The Bill does not address that. In fact, we are concerned that the introduction of the Bill will worsen the situation.

All public-hire taxis must have disability access, and all drivers must be trained to deal with disabled people. I have not met any drivers who are trained to assist blind people. Fortunately, when I was a bus driver, I was trained to work with disabled people through the minibus driver awareness scheme (MiDAS). I strongly recommend that training, because it gives participants a whole new focus on how to work and live with disadvantaged people, from those with slight disabilities to those who are more severely disabled. The MiDAS system must be introduced for all taxi drivers in Northern Ireland who want to operate a public-hire taxi service. All fares should be set via negotiations involving the Department of the Environment and the Consumer Council, so that there is third-party involvement, and the PSNI should have full enforcement rights on taxi legislation.

We have heard stories today about getting access to a taxi. If people are shopping in the centre of Belfast, in CastleCourt, they cannot get access to a public-hire taxi unless they walk for half a mile in either direction. We do not have access to shopping areas, ports, airports or train stations. It is difficult for a disabled person to get a public-hire taxi. We also do not have access to hospitals. If a disabled person phones for a taxi to collect them from a hospital appointment, a saloon car arrives, they are pushed from the rear into the back seat of the car, and their wheelchair is put in the boot. I have witnessed that. Public-hire taxis must have disability access. Give us the tools to do that job, and I will guarantee that our taxi charter will deliver for Northern Ireland.

Mr Andrew Overton ( London Taxis International):

London Taxis International (LTI Vehicles) supplies the majority of purpose-built taxis in Northern Ireland. I have been in the business all my life and have been coming to Belfast for 20-odd years, and we are passionate about the taxi trade that operates in this city. We support the intentions of the Taxis Bill and the fact that it addresses matters such as professionalising the taxi trade. Many good intentions are represented in the Bill. We support training for taxi drivers, and we will help to provide that, as we manufacture accessible taxis. There is a need for better standards for taxis, and the standard of conversions that was mentioned by Michael Lorimer is an issue that must be addressed. New accessible taxis should be introduced outside Belfast.

My comments relate to Belfast city. Officials from the Department of the Environment have said that their public consultations have shown that a one-tier system is the way forward. We have considered that conclusion and the Department of the Environment’s documents, and we find that there serious concerns in Newry, Cookstown, Enniskillen and Armagh about the impact of the Bill. Certainly, the taxi trade in Belfast is concerned about the impact of the Bill. There is an impression that there will be no financial impact on the taxi trade. However, there are 450 purpose-built vehicles operating as public-hire taxis and 2,000 private-hire taxis, and, if those 2,000 private-hire taxis can suddenly pick up in the street, that will have a dramatic impact on the drivers’ incomes. I am sure that drivers have informed the Committee of that. It is similar to one shop opening up in a street and, suddenly, four other shops open up in the same street selling exactly the same thing. That will have an effect.

Our concern is that the number of accessible cabs will decrease. I accept as valid the point that IMTAC made earlier that people need to be able to contact accessible taxis. The public-hire taxi drivers to whom we have been talking accept that they may have to use a radio. However, were their income to drop substantially, they would return to driving saloon cars, so the overall number of accessible cabs would fall. That is contrary to what is happening in the rest of the UK. My role in LTI Vehicles is to liaise with local authorities across the country on implementing accessible taxi policies. Public-hire taxi companies everywhere else in the UK are increasing their number of accessible taxis, not reducing it.

The Bill may be a charter for the private-hire industry. That industry will view the Bill as being wonderful, because those who drive saloon cars must sign up to a radio circuit. One private-hire operator told me that private-hire drivers want to make life as difficult as possible for black-cab drivers, and, for that reason, he supports the Bill.

The legislation will have a serious effect on the trade’s livelihood and on the number of accessible cabs in Belfast, which will go down, not up. I am not saying that private-hire operators will not rub their hands and put on more taxis, but that is not the issue. The issue is that people are trying to earn a living. LTI Vehicles pleads with the Committee to take that point seriously.

My colleague Richard Daniels will propose a couple of amendments to the Bill. Those amendments would enable the Department to preserve the current system, because we do not believe that the rank-only pick-up point will work. There are only 31 permanent rank spaces in Belfast city, and taxi drivers will be unable to earn a living solely from working on those ranks. It will also be very difficult to police the exclusion zone that the Bill provides for, and we do not think that that proposed system will work properly. My request is that the Committee take that point seriously.

Mr Richard Daniels ( London Taxis International):

We are essentially looking at the regulatory framework that will be adopted. Andrew’s point is that we must ensure that regulation is proportionate. To that end, I wish to propose two amendments, both of which apply to clause 20.

My first amendment would secure the provision of disabled-accessible vehicles that can be held on the street. If accepted, clause 20 would include:

“The Department may make regulations to apply to taxis of a specific class or to taxis of a particular class of use to operate within a designated geographic area in standing or plying for hire or reward or to carry passengers for hire or reward.”

The second amendment would secure the provision of non-accessible taxis that can operate a pre-booking service. As a result, those vehicles would remain accessible. The proposed amendment reads:

“The Department may make regulations to taxis of a specific class or to taxis of a particular class of use to operate within a designated geographic area as vehicles which are used (a) solely in connection with a hiring for the purpose of carrying one or more passengers; or (b) are immediately available to an operator to carry out pre-booked work.”

Those definitions are taken from the Private Hire Vehicles ( London) Act 1998. Those amendments would secure the provision of an accessible taxi service, which should be a right in a city such as Belfast, as it is in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, London or Liverpool. It is important to state that. The comments that the IMTAC representatives made earlier are also valid.

Mr Weir:

I appreciate that the Committee will have a record of the proposed amendments, because members will want to absorb their content and return to them at a later date.

You have concerns about Belfast’s moving from a two-tier system to a one-tier system. Why do you think that Belfast should be different to anywhere else in Northern Ireland?

Mr Smyth:

Belfast is the only place in Northern Ireland in which public-hire taxis as we know them operate.

Mr Weir:

That is a circular argument.

Mr Smyth:

We are proposing that the whole of Northern Ireland has access to accessible taxis, but, unfortunately, we are dealing with Belfast now.

Mr Overton:

The issue is pertinent to Belfast; it is not an issue outside Belfast. All taxis outside Belfast are, for the most part, public-hire taxis. There is a two-tier system in Belfast, so there is an economic balance between the taxis that ply for hire at taxi ranks and on the street and those that are not allowed to do so. If the rules for Belfast are changed, and five times as many vehicles are permitted to pick up fares along the street, the taxi operators’ business model will be undermined completely.

Mr Weir:

Regardless of the system, should there not be a level playing field across Northern Ireland? Mr Overton used a good analogy: someone sells a product in a shop and other shops open on the same street and sell the same product. I understand that markets change suddenly, but that is how business operates. Are you suggesting that shops on a street should be banned from selling fruit and vegetables merely because another shop is already doing so?

Mr Smyth:

I am a self-employed taxi driver and I operate a public-hire taxi. I want to be self-employed. However, under the new legislation, I will be forced into a circuit, and I do not want to work for one. I do not want to have to give backhanders to radio operators to ensure that I will get my fair share of work; nor do I want to have to pay depot rent when I am sick or on holidays. I want to be self-employed. Why am I being forced to join a circuit?

Mr Weir:

I understand why someone who is working in public-hire taxis, particularly in Belfast, will have concerns about the legislation and, perhaps, be opposed to it. However, I am still not convinced that Belfast should be treated differently to the rest of Northern Ireland.

Mr Smyth:

Competition is good, but this legislation will mean that our drivers will not be permitted to pick up fares at locations such as the George Best Belfast City Airport or Belfast International Airport. However, taxi drivers operating at the airports will be able to come to Belfast and work the ranks.

Mr Weir:

There should be equality for all taxi drivers, but we will hear from the airport taxi drivers later, and the issue will be dealt with then.

Mr Daniels:

In urban areas, disabled people have the right to hail a taxi and get a taxi from a rank. After a while, because these proposals will unbalance the economic model, they will have to phone for taxis. In rural areas, there is no justification for having all vehicles as disabled-accessible vehicles. However, in urban areas it is justified, because disabled people should have the right to hail taxis on the street or at a rank. That is what happens in many other cities.

Mr Weir:

Belfast is much smaller than many of the cities that you have used in your examples. Glasgow and Edinburgh would be closer in size to Belfast whereas London would be larger.

Mr Daniels:

London is bigger, and I would not draw on that analogy too strongly.

The Chairperson:

We have spent enough time on that question.

Mr T Clarke:

It was feared that people would go for the cheaper taxi if the one-tier system were introduced. You are from London: why not make your taxis cheaper so that everyone can buy them — that is, if you are really concerned about disabled people in Northern Ireland?

Mr Overton:

Let me give you a simple answer. If we were selling saloon cars that were non-accessible, we could make them cheaper. Today we have heard about the standard of accessible taxis, and IMTAC has said that it wants good-quality, safe vehicles for use by disabled people. Michael Lorimer praised London-style taxis, and we have spent much time and effort developing a purpose-built taxi that is safe for the passenger and the driver and that is accessible for wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users. It costs more to build such a vehicle.

Mr T Clarke:

Perhaps we let Mr Lorimer off with his comments about some taxis being converted vans. Vehicles in Northern Ireland go through a more rigorous test than those on the mainland, and converted vans have been inspected by DOE vehicle-testing centres and approved for the purpose for which they were built. We let Mr Lorimer off with his comments about van conversions, because those vans have to be brought up to a standard.

Mr Overton:

Even the DOE officials have said that they want to address accessibility and safety standards for vehicles. They have said that the Bill will enable them to address those issues. The argument was about whether we have saloons or whether we have accessible cabs at all.

Mr T Clarke:

Some vehicles may need to be improved. If the Government have set a standard for van conversions, and if those vans pass the test, it is unfair to say that they are not up to standard. However, if the Government now believe that their standard could be tightened to make the test more rigorous, that would be welcome. It is unfair on the owners of such vehicles for the Government to assume that they are not up to standard.

Mr Daniels:

To be fair, there are different standards. There is European Community whole-vehicle-type approval, which we and companies such as Peugeot 07 and Allied Vehicle Contracts have, and there are lower standards within the EU framework, so there is a separation. Some of the vehicles mentioned come under low-volume small-series-type approval, which is a lesser standard.

Mr Overton:

I do not want to lose the focus. If a saloon car can pick up a fare off the street, why would a taxi driver have a purpose-built vehicle? He would not. If he can pick up off the street — and there are only 31 rank spaces — the 400 accessible cabs would diminish. As the vehicles get older, drivers will replace them with saloon cars. I am not debating the quality of accessible taxis: they will not be accessible at all; drivers will go back to saloons. Therefore, the overall fleet of accessible cabs will decrease.

Mr Boylan:

I will not get into the debate about rural and city taxis. It seems strange that you want to reduce the numbers. You also referred to additions, tests and training levels. Are they referred to in the Bill? Can you elaborate on that?

Mr Overton:

We would support taxi-driver training, as taxi drivers benefit from training in handling and dealing with disabled passengers. As the manufacturer of accessible taxis, we are happy to help authorities to set up training courses for drivers to learn how to use the facilities that we provide in our vehicles. We are aware that drivers do not always load wheelchair passengers into our vehicles in the best way, so we would be happy for taxi drivers to have training in that. I have spent years dealing with disabled people who complain about some of the issues that we have heard today, and we must move that issue forward.

Mr Smyth:

Who would provide the training? Belfast Metropolitan College advertised for tutors, but it was unable to fill the position. The problem is that the training needed, which is part of the certificate of professional competence (CPC) training, has been extended to taxi drivers, and they must obtain seven hours’ training a year. Bus drivers have to obtain 35 hours’ training and, when that is complete, their licence will be renewed. Taxi drivers will have to train for 21 hours.

Will I, as a taxi driver, invest in my training this year, not knowing whether I will be in the taxi trade in three years’ time, or will I wait — as I suspect most people will do — until year three when there will be a mad rush to get the training in order to get my licence renewed? The T&G Section of Unite has 12 registered tutors, fully competent in delivering the training programme, with the North West Regional College. The West Belfast Taxi Association is developing a training course for its drivers. However, that will add additional charges, and in the circuits they will pass those on to drivers, incurring more hours to pay more depot rent.

Mr Armstrong:

My statement may be a bit unfair, but taxis are not very visible. On the subject of safety, ordinary saloon cars are more visible, better lit up and can be easily seen at dusk. However, the lighting system on black taxis is poor and does not come on automatically when it becomes dull during the day.

Mr Overton:

I was referring to the safety of the people inside the vehicles —

Mr Armstrong:

I know what you were referring to —

Mr Overton:

I take your point. There is nothing to stop drivers from deciding to have a colour code. For instance, in Derby —

Mr Armstrong:

I am not talking about colour codes; I am talking about lighting systems.

Mr Daniels:

It is not something that we have come across with any regulatory authority that we have spoken to.

Mr Armstrong:

I know that.

Mr Overton:

I will be happy to consider any proposals that you have. It is not an issue that has been raised before, but I take your point.

Mr Smyth:

On that point of safety, a number of years ago Dublin Bus instructed all its drivers to drive with their headlights on at all times — day, night, summer and winter. That reduced accidents by 50%. All public-hire vehicles should drive with their headlights on at all times. Personally, when I am driving my car — day or night — I always have the headlights on.

Mr Armstrong:

I have noticed that black taxis do not have lights on when every other car does.

The Chairperson:

I thank the witnesses for attending. We explored many issues, and I was quite generous with the time allocation. Needless to say, your comments will be considered by the Committee.

Mr Smyth:

In closing: we want to work in partnership with the non-governmental organisations, the Government and elected representatives for the future of public transport in Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:

We have a submission from Mr James Beckett in his capacity as vice-chairman of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU).

Mr James Matier (Transport and General Workers’ Union):

I am a committee member of the TGWU also.

The Chairperson:

Are you giving the presentation?

Mr Matier:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

The submission that has been given to the Committee is very detailed. Your presentation should last no longer than 10 to 15 minutes. Members will then ask questions.

Mr Beckett:

Chairman, we believe that the Taxis Bill is a personal baby for Adele Watters.

The Chairperson:

Hold on a minute, James. Irrespective of the personalities involved in this, Adele Watters is a civil servant who is acting on behalf of the Department of the Environment. We are here to discuss the Department’s Taxis Bill. Please focus on the context and the content of that Taxis Bill. Thank you.

Mr Beckett:

No disrespect to Adele, sir.

The Chairperson:

Sorry, sir. I do not want to emphasise the point again, and I will not say it again. We are here to focus on the Taxis Bill.

Mr Beckett:

Right, OK. I will focus on that. Our main concern is public safety, the cost to the public and accessibility to the public. Mr Boylan asked a question about the views of rural areas on the Taxis Bill. There was a public meeting in Newry, and the people there were critical of the Bill and rejected it —

The Chairperson:

You have referred to an issue that Cathal raised earlier. We are here to discuss the Taxis Bill; we are not referring back to what was said earlier. After your presentation, Mr Boylan will have the opportunity to question you on aspects of that submission.

Mr Beckett:

That was part of my presentation. Can I not present my evidence?

The Chairperson:

Just to be clear, if you are referring to the issue of rural isolation, that is fair enough. Please address the issue of rural isolation and the difficulties with rural taxis. Mr Boylan asked a question; however, it does not refer to your submission. Please stick to the subject of your submission.

Mr Beckett:

My submission deals with his question. I submitted the 10 findings that emerged from the public consultation meetings. There was opposition in nine of those meetings to the Taxis Bill. That is why I provided those statements.

We met the Minister of the Environment on 12 September, and she gave us assurances. We received an immediate response from the Department. On Tuesday night, I spoke to an official in the Department who told James Matier and me that the provisions in the Bill could not — and would not — be policed. That official told us that there was no way that the Department would police the provisions.

I wish to mention a past Member of the Assembly, the late David Ervine. He was greatly respected in the political world. He worked with us on the Taxis Bill for three years, and I have a copy of his response to it. He met us regularly, used our contributions and fought our corner. The closing words of his response are:

“The Department had the opportunity to make this taxi industry work for the benefit of the public and the driver. We believe they have failed miserably. This is mainly a money-making exercise.”

Mr Weir:

With respect, I appreciate those sentiments; however, to take evidence from someone who has died is a difficult road for us to go down.

The Chairperson:

I listened carefully to determine the relevance of that evidence to the Taxis Bill. Mr Beckett, I hear your point, but please confine yourself to the opinions of your organisation.

Mr Matier:

I wish to explain the reason that the one-tier system will not work in Belfast and the reason that my income will drop by 75% if that mechanism is introduced and private-hire taxis are allowed to pick up on the street. There are not enough taxi ranks to enable us to earn back that 75%.

I know of four proposed taxi ranks, which we believe are to be approved in Stormont today. Of those, the proposed taxi rank in Donegall Street, near the John Hewitt bar, is out of the way and unsuitable for disabled people. Taxi ranks must be at shopping centres such as CastleCourt and the new Victoria Square development. We asked for 12 taxi ranks, but only four have been proposed. That will not enable us to regain that 75% drop in our incomes.

I wish to submit a proposal to the Committee that would benefit disabled people and the public in Belfast. I have submitted a map that highlights the existing taxi ranks as well as our proposed additional ranks, which we believe will bring the taxi industry into the twenty-first century.

On 12 September, Adele Watters admitted that we were 20 years behind —

The Chairperson:

Please stick with your own submission.

Mr Matier:

The taxi industry is behind, and it has always been classed as a terrorist threat. Drivers have asked for ranks within the city limits in places such as CastleCourt, but we have been told repeatedly that we are a terrorist threat. More than 10 years after the ceasefires, we should be growing with the city, but we have been unable to do so. It took more than two years to get those four taxi ranks.

They are a waste of time. There is a proposal for a taxi rank on the Lisburn Road at Hunter’s bar. Do disabled people drink there? No. There is one proposed for Chichester Street, near the new shopping centre. The other two are proposed for the Dublin Road and Donegall Street — disabled people do not go there. Accessible taxis should have unlimited access in the city, and there should be taxi ranks throughout the whole city.

The two-tier system should be retained because if a one-tier system were implemented, I would lose 75% of my income, which will mean changing my vehicle to an ordinary saloon car. My taxi cost £32,000, whereas I can buy a saloon car for £10,000. Over a three-year period of payments, I would save £21,000 by changing my vehicle to a saloon car.

If the Taxis Bill passes, it will ruin accessible-taxi provision in Belfast. I have raised my misgivings about the taxi ranks, and I have an Equality Commission report on working with the taxi industry. To my knowledge, the Taxis Bill was never discussed with anyone in the black-taxi industry — yet they are the people who are concerned about it. Adele Watters and Disability Action should come and talk to us. The taxi branch of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) opened 12 months ago. We tried to talk to people about the Taxis Bill before it got to this stage, but the doors were closed in our faces. The Taxis Bill might increase the number of accessible taxis in rural areas, but it will not in Belfast — it will decrease them, and put me in financial difficulty.

Mr Weir:

I appreciate your point about the lack of taxi ranks. That is something that the Department should be addressing through regulations rather than in the Bill; presumably, the Bill will not list where the new taxi ranks will be.

Mr Matier:

Under the Bill, private-hire taxis will not be allowed to pick up a fare within a certain distance of taxi ranks. Pick-ups cannot be enforced now — how will that be enforced in future? Currently, the taxi rank at Belfast City Hall has 35 spaces; how are 400 of us supposed to fit into that? If disabled people say that there is a lack of accessible taxis, it is down to a lack of taxi ranks.

Mr Weir:

Again, I will ask a question that has been posed to many bodies. Much of the debate will centre on whether there should be a one-tier or two-tier system. I appreciate that a one-tier system would have a detrimental impact financially on public-hire taxi drivers. The flip side of that is that the private-hire taxis would pick-up a lot more trade. Objectively, although I understand the impact on public-hire taxis, it would be a case of swings and roundabouts. Why do you think that Belfast — particularly the city centre — should be treated differently from anywhere else in respect of the regulation of taxis?

Mr Matier:

That is because there is already a sizeable number of accessible taxis in Belfast. If the Taxis Bill is implemented, it will decrease the number of accessible taxis in Belfast. There needs to be an increase in accessible taxis in rural areas. If the Taxis Bill is implemented, with a one-tier system, my income will drop.

Mr Weir:

Do you not think that the whole of Northern Ireland should be on a level playing field?

Mr Matier:

No, because there is already a sizeable number of accessible taxis in Belfast.

Mr Beckett:

The Department created the two-tier system, not us. When applying for a vehicle licence, a driver has a choice between public hire or private hire. It is the driver’s choice whether he wants to work the streets or work from a depot. There is choice and competition.

Mr Matier:

I understand what Barbara was saying; some of the things that I heard made me feel sick. I understand the training issue — I started the taxi branch of TGWU because I understand that training is necessary. I do not have disability training — I learnt how to put a wheelchair in a taxi myself. I understand that all fares should be shown on the meter.

If Belfast public-hire taxis have to leave the city limits, there should be a surcharge for returning; however, taxi ranks and other matters are 20 years behind. I totally agree on the training. I disagree with people’s being ripped off. That is why our proposals for the taxi industry go into the twenty-first century. If DOE and DRD give us taxi ranks, we will be able to provide a service for all disabled persons, no matter whether they are blind, wheelchair-users or whatever. We all know that, because of the Troubles, the industry, in every part of the city, is 20 years behind. The industry needs to grow; it needs to have the chance to grow. The two-tier system should stay in Belfast to give us, as the Belfast public-hire taxis branch of TGWU, a chance to grow with the city.

Mr Boylan:

My question has been answered; however, I am concerned about the issue with Belfast and the surrounding area. Many rural taxis that service regular runs and weekly work are saloon cars. Those will all, therefore, have to become accessible taxis. For those drivers to argue that they have saloon cars, and a regular run during the week, with a bit of extra work at the weekend, is the same as your arguing the case to secure your business in your area. It should be fair.

The Committee has listened to submissions over past two weeks and, apart from the Consumer Council, we have heard mostly from taxi associations. We listened to a customer this morning, and when I heard —

Mr Matier:

May I point out —

Mr Chairman:

Had you finished?

Mr Boylan:

No. From the point of view of that passenger, I understand that people are trying to secure a one-tier fares system that applies to everyone, or, if not that, then a two-tier system.

My other concern was taxi ranks. Stakeholders have the opportunity to discuss the problems and to challenge some of the clauses in the Bill, and you say that there are not enough taxi ranks.

Mr Matier:

There are not enough taxi ranks. There are 31 to 35 spaces in Belfast to hold 400 Belfast public-hire taxis. Every day, the NCP give out tickets for double parking. The eyesore opposite Belfast City Hall is not our fault; we are trying to ply for work. There are eight spaces there, and six at the side of the City Hall. Some days, probably 20 to 30 taxis sit there, trying to get into those spaces. The NCP warden comes around, leaves a ticket and goes. It is the same at the side of the City Hall: that space is for public transport, and we are not allowed in there. On occasions, the traffic wardens and the police are at the City Hall. They make us drive up Howard Street, past Jury’s Hotel and back down again. We are Belfast public-hire taxis, but we are not looked upon as a public service.

If a disabled person in a wheelchair gets into my vehicle, I am not allowed to charge any more than the meter price, whereas other taxi companies in Belfast charge a minimum of £8 or £10. I get out, put the wheelchair into the car, strap it up, get back into my vehicle and put on the meter. We do not rip people off. We charge whatever amount is on the meter.

Mr Ford:

You made it clear in your written submission that a major concern is regulation, and Jimmy quoted a department official as saying, “We cannot police this Bill”. I am well aware of your concerns at the moment, as well as the proposals. How do you see regulations alleviating those concerns? Clearly, elements of the Bill require regulations to ensure that taxi ranks are used appropriately, and so on. What is the appropriate body to do that? If it should be the Department, and if there are issues concerning resources, are you prepared to see an increase in the cost of licences to pay for that?

Mr Beckett:

The Department did away with taxi-driving tests. I did a test, but many of the new drivers have not done a test. Six years ago, my licence fee was £26. It is now £75: it has increased by 200%. The cost of an MOT test for a taxi has increased twice in six months and is now £126∙50. However, the MOT test for a car — which is, more or less, the same test as for a taxi — costs only £30. We do not know what the Department proposes to charge for the test but it has inserted a clause into the Bill enabling the fee to be paid in instalments, which suggests to me that it will be substantial.

Another major concern is the use of taximeters. A fare at 9.00 am might cost £8, and the same fare at 11.00 am might cost £3 because there is no traffic or waiting around at that time. When, at my depot, one company introduced taximeters, a fare of £3 rose to £4∙50, and at peak periods became £5 or £6. As a result, the public took its custom elsewhere. The depot owner had to remove the taximeters and return to the set fare structure.

Taxis are regulated by the Department, and the Bill states that all taximeters will be required to be sealed by the Department. The Department has also said that it does not have the manpower to seal all the taximeters. If that is so, then how does it expect to be able to police the new proposals?

There is another major issue. When I was invited to attend today’s meeting, I received the Committee’s rule booklet explaining what I should do. However, taxi drivers have no rules to guide them: there is no code of conduct. For the past year, I have been asking for a book of rules and regulations for taxi drivers. The Department’s response has been that it has no book. However, day after day, taxi drivers are pulled in and accused of breaking this rule or that regulation. I have asked that taxi drivers be shown the rules or regulations, but that is not done. The Department produces no guidance.

For example, I was prosecuted for puing: that is, picking up someone from the street without a booking. I had a white plate on my vehicle, which authorised me for public hire outside Belfast. I was fined £56 and a further £28 in costs. The two sections of the Department work side by side. The licensing section sent me a letter asking me to attend a meeting or my licence would be revoked because I did not tell them about my conviction. However, they were the very people who prosecuted me; they had sat in the courtroom during my hearing. That is what we are up against daily.

As I said, on 12 September, the Minister spoke to DOE officials and said to them that if these are the facts, she is not surprised that taxi drivers are angry. That was on 12 September. On 14 September, we got action from the Department because Arlene Foster had intervened directly.

Mr I McCrea:

You mentioned taximeters. What opinions do you have on a maximum fare?

Mr Matier:

A maximum fare will create chaos, especially in the area served by the Belfast public-hire taxis. The driver at the front of the rank might charge the maximum fare; if I am second or third in the rank, I could charge less than that. The passenger will go down the taxi rank asking drivers how much they will charge. The way we work the rank, the first taxi there is the first one away. The maximum fare will create chaos; the minimum fare should stay. It is understandable that a maximum fare could be imposed in certain circumstances, but, in general, it will create chaos in our industry.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your time; your contribution has been very useful.

Mr Beckett:

Mr Chairperson, may I say that all the evidence that I have given is publicly available.

The Chairperson:

Thank you.

Mr Matier:

May I submit these supporting documents? There is also a map of the proposed taxi ranks.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. Will the representatives from the George Best Belfast City Airport taxi rank please come forward? Mr McCloskey, thank you for coming today. You have probably sat through the whole session, so we will try to make this as relaxed as possible — although within certain guidelines.

Mr Anthony McCloskey ( George Best Belfast City Airport Taxi Rank):

I have only a few questions to ask and a short submission to make. I made most of my proposals in writing, and I am here only to highlight a few of them.

I have been a Belfast public-hire taxi driver for more than 34 years and have had very little help or protection from the Department of the Environment in that time. The franchise for George Best Belfast City Airport runs a fleet of 50 taxis, all of which are wheelchair accessible. We do not charge anyone extra.

All our taxis are in pristine condition, and we would advocate to the Committee that all ports, airports, bus and train stations, and city centres, should have wheelchair-accessible taxis; in fact, I would suggest extending that to every town and city in Northern Ireland.

We agree with a one-tier system, as long as it includes wheelchair-accessible taxis. All our taxis at Belfast City Airport are metered, and we set a fair rate in conjunction with the airport. We would like all taxis in Northern Ireland to be metered, those meters having been calibrated and sealed by the Department of the Environment or its appointed agent.

We want a maximum fare to be set at the highest rate possible in order to accommodate people such as us who pay a high premium to stand and ply for hire at Belfast City Airport. At the moment, our minimum fare is £5, which is scarcely enough.

Rather than running backwards and forwards looking for rises every year or every second year, if the maximum fare was set at a high rate, drivers could get a price rise and it would not take up a lot of time — it would be within the maximum fare, if you understand what I mean. In the past, we have found getting a fare rise to be a very laborious task, and by the time the rise was passed and implemented, it was time to look for another one. It took about a year to get the rise, and we were kicked from Department to Department and then to the Consumer Council. I was a wee bit bemused as to how we ended up at the Consumer Council. I wish that the process for getting a fare rise was more accessible, and that it was easier, rather than harder, to get one.

Our taxi licences are too cheap — licences should be expensive. Getting a licence should involve going on a four- or five-day course that includes a driving test, an aptitude test, a knowledge test and Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (Imtac) training. The majority of our drivers carry have such training; they have paid for it themselves. Such training and testing should be part of the licence-application process. In layman’s terms, the drivers should be told the rules, regulations and penalties, so that when they are sent out to ferry the public around, they know exactly what they can and cannot do, and they go out to do a professional job.

We have different types of vehicles, all passed by the Department. Some of them do not carry the Belfast public-hire specification, which includes a partition. That should be an optional extra for the driver — if he wants it for his own safety, depending on where he works. Manufacturers are now producing wheelchair-accessible vehicles, which are readily obtained. We have a variety of such vehicles at George Best Belfast City Airport.

Finally, I suggest only one amendment to the Taxis Bill. I would like to see a zone in Belfast in which the only type of taxi that is allowed to ply for hire is an accessible vehicle. That could be amended slightly to allow outside taxis to come in to the city at the weekend, say from midnight Friday to dawn on Saturday and from midnight Saturday to dawn on Sunday. Those are the only times when there is a scarcity of taxis in Belfast. Other than that, a zone should be in operation in which only wheelchair-accessible taxis are allowed to pick up or ply for hire.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for outlining your case with such clarity.

Mr Weir:

Thank you for your evidence. Other witnesses have mentioned the situation at the airport. How do things operate at George Best Belfast City Airport? Is there some sort of franchise system? Do drivers pay a particular premium? I was going to use the word “accessible”, but that might be the wrong word in this case. How open is the system, and who can avail of it?

Mr McCloskey:

The committee advertises when it needs drivers. We interview them to see whether they meet the criteria, and we explain to them the way in which we operate.

I omitted to mention enforcement. We work at George Best Belfast City Airport, which, as you know, is part of Belfast harbour industrial estate and has its own by-laws. I would like enforcement powers to be extended to the Belfast harbour police.

In answer to Mr Weir’s question, we carry out interviews and we run the scheme on a committee basis. We do not make a profit.

Mr Weir:

I am trying to clarify the way in which the scheme operates. Is it almost like a form of licensing that permits taxi drivers to operate at the George Best Belfast City Airport? If so, do those taxi drivers have to pay a fee?

Mr McCloskey:

We pay the George Best Belfast City Airport a substantial fee for the franchise to operate at the airport.

Mr Weir:

If a taxi driver has not gone through your process, would he be able to drive into the George Best Belfast City Airport and pick up a fare?

Mr McCloskey:

No.

Mr Weir:

Some people feel that there is not a level playing field inasmuch as the range of taxi drivers that can operate at George Best Belfast City Airport is restricted. Presumably, taxi drivers who work at the airport are free to pick up fares outside the airport.

Mr McCloskey:

No. Airport taxi drivers have a restricted public-hire plate for use outside Belfast. We do not operate in the city centre. We operate only at the airport.

Mr Weir:

Is that because you are restricted by regulations?

Mr McCloskey:

Yes.

Mr Weir:

Finally, as regards the proposed legislation, do you see any particular implications for taxiing at George Best Belfast City Airport, over and above anything that applies elsewhere?

Mr McCloskey:

No. Our boss — for want of a better description — is the director of the airport. If he tells us to reverse around the airport, we would do that because he is the king of the castle.

Mr Weir:

It would be interesting to see you reversing around the airport.

Mr McCloskey:

I read about a court case in Birmingham in which the judge said that the director of the airport was akin to the king of the castle who ruled over all he surveyed. The Belfast harbour estate has its own by-laws. However, the harbour police do not have any by-laws that control taxis. In addition to the airport, there is the harbour, and many types of transport, including cruise ships are coming into Belfast. Therefore, the harbour police should be involved in enforcement.

Mr Ford:

Are all your vehicles, rather than just a proportion of them, wheelchair-friendly? I know that some of the vehicles are of an MPV-style.

Mr McCloskey:

We have purpose-built taxis. We have Volkswagens, Mercedes’ and Peugeots that are in pristine condition. They have to be below a certain age.

Mr Ford:

Are you operating a 100% accessible fleet of taxis?

Mr McCloskey:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your time, Mr McCloskey. Your attendance at today’s meeting has been very useful.

Mc McCloskey:

I must tell Mr Armstrong that, after 35 years, I found the lighting at Stormont to be not too bad. I managed to get around all right.

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