Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2006/2007

Date: 13 September 2007

Taxis Bill: West Belfast Taxi Association

Northern Ireland Assembly

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

13 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 Tommy Gallagher
Mr Samuel Gardiner
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Daithí McKay
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:
Mr Samuel Egerton
Mr Stephen Long )West Belfast Taxi Association
Mr Stephen O’Reilly )
Mr Robert McAllister

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
The next item of business is the Committee Stage of the Taxis Bill. As the Committee will be dealing with a lot of business today, each person giving oral evidence will be given a maximum of 15 minutes to make a presentation, after which I will move proceedings on so as to afford everyone an opportunity to present his case. Members may raise questions about the clarity of the evidence, and, finally, if required, the Committee will hear from officials from the Department of the Environment, who will shed light on the details of the legislation.

The Taxis Bill is complex, and there may be some difficulties in it, but I ask the witnesses to bear with us, as we aim to stay focused on its main content and the issues contained therein.

The Committee will now hear evidence from Mr Samuel Egerton. Thank you for attending, Mr Egerton. I will ask you to identify yourself and the organisation that you represent. Mr Egerton, the floor is yours. The Committee will time the proceedings, so please bear with me if I interrupt to say that your time is coming to a close.

Mr Samuel Egerton:
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to express our views. Some of those views will be the same as other taxi drivers, and some will be personal.

I have been in the taxi industry for 25 years — since approximately 1982 — and age tends to blur time. Since I am the first taxi driver to give evidence to the Committee, I urge members to spare a moment to consider some of my colleagues who are no longer with us. Northern Ireland suffered much over the past 40 years, and many taxi drivers were murdered or assaulted or had their cars hijacked. Given the current trend of binge drinking, many taxi drivers are subjected to verbal abuse at the weekends. I am sure that, in their own areas, members see young ladies and men hanging out of taxi windows and doing all sorts of things such as yelling and singing, but it is taxi drivers who get those people home. We should not forget those who work in the taxi industry — and from other sectors of Northern Ireland society — who are not with us today.

The Chairperson:
Yes. Thank you for that.

Mr Egerton:
I acknowledge the effort that the taxi review team has put into the Taxis Bill. The team has been working on it for a long time, but I have been involved for even longer. I sat in this Building a long time ago with other taxi drivers, and we were given promises by the then Minister Richard Needham that there would be changes in the taxi industry. Those changes did not materialise. The recommendations of the Sterling Report were not implemented, and I would be delighted if a Committee member were to ask the Department why they were not even partly implemented, because one of the report’s many prominent proposals related to depot licensing. There are many similarities between what happened to the Sterling Report and the current process. If depot licensing alone had been introduced all those years ago, I suspect that we would not be sitting here today, wondering where we are going.

We have been down this road before, and I feel restricted in what I am permitted to say. However, the Taxis Bill is weak: its foundations may not be built on sand, but they are weak in aggregate. Matters that should be covered by the Bill — such as taxi driver numbers — have been omitted. If you wish to rule me out of order, Mr Chairperson, please do so.

The Chairperson:
The Committee is restricted to consideration of what is in the Bill, so I ask you to restrict your comments likewise.

Mr Egerton:
I accept that, Mr Chairperson. The Taxis Bill is enabling legislation, and, as the Minister said, its recommendations will not cost anything: it is a piece of paper. However, taxi drivers and their associated bodies anticipate all sorts of ramifications from the Bill. I and many others feel that we are being asked to issue a blank cheque. I am sure that Committee members who are in business, in some shape or form, know that. People who are in business need to have cost projections, but we do not have any.

Taxi drivers have been told that the legislation will mean the introduction of standards, increased enforcement and depot licensing. We have no problems with that. However, clause 2 of the Bill deals with the licensing of sole operators. I have been self-employed — a sole trader — for many years, as have most other taxi drivers. There will be ramifications for the taxi industry if the Department pushes ahead with the licensing aspect of the legislation. For instance — and this has been discussed before in other places — if a Committee member flags me down at 1.00 am, perhaps a wee bit under the weather — and my apologies for saying that — I have to ask him for a destination and a name, because I am a sole operator. Therefore, those involved in the taxi industry see many practical difficulties. I am a legitimate taxi driver, but I cannot speak for legitimate taxi-depot drivers.

We should not fear change, because change is long overdue; it is the outworkings of that change that concerns us.

Let me go back to the point about operator licensing. Those operators pose no problems because they run commercial businesses and have systems in place. One of the significant messages that came from the consultation document, however, was that many taxi firms have fewer than five drivers, many of whom are self-employed. In rural areas, there are several one-man operations in which drivers work from home and cover their villages or towns.

The cost implications of the proposed legislation are very important to us. Let us make no bones about it: taxi depots will pass the costs of the changes on to the drivers. As an individual, I cannot pass those costs on to my customers.

To be honest, the Department of the Environment’s record on setting reasonable fares is quite appalling. In 2004, after two and a half years, Belfast public hire drivers on the day shift — I call myself a day-shift worker — were awarded a mere 10p of a fare rise. During that time, fuel costs rose by between 20p and 25p a litre, and the Department’s inspection fee was increased to £126. Those figures speak for themselves. How was the 10p fare rise arrived at?

With regard to sole drivers/operators, many of my colleagues in Belfast feel that we do not need to have sole operator licences. That will be discussed later. I am easy about that; I do not have a problem with it, but I do have a problem with the cost involved, which is a concern for one-person operations. I really feel that although the Department has considered the option, it has not thought it through properly.

If the Department wanted to, it could include a clause in the Bill to outlaw any contrived arrangement made to get around the requirement to apply for an operator’s licence. For example, the Department said that if a person who was running a depot had say, six or seven guys with an operator’s licence working from his depot, he would not need an operator’s licence himself. To me, that would be a contrived arrangement, which should be outlawed. I have no idea how such an arrangement could be made, but it could be circumvented.

The other major issue, which relates particularly to Belfast, is the abolition of the two-tier system. In her speech to the Assembly on 26 June during the debate on the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill, the Minister of the Environment made it clear that the two-tier system was history. However, not enough research has been done into the economic impact that the abolition of that system will have on individuals like me. The T&G Section of Unite estimates that as many as 450 drivers may lose their jobs. That is the equivalent, for example, of the closure of a major manufacturing complex, and it will mean a gradual strangulation and deprivation of work for individuals like me.

The Department of the Environment raised the issue of exclusion zones. The taxi rank at the corner of Great Victoria Street and Amelia Street is one of only two ranks that operate during the day in Belfast — I will return to ranks later. However, there are a couple of food outlets near that rank. If the DOE imposes a 250-metre exclusion zone, into which only accessible taxis are permitted, guys who are not supposed to be there will drive in and say "I am tying my shoelace", or "I want to go to the shop for 20 cigarettes", or " I want to buy a drink". It is happening already. They sit at the back of our ranks as though they are waiting for somebody; and if they are looked at suspiciously, they go and buy something. Other drivers say the same. I have heard that a member of the Committee has been out and about in Belfast investigating the matter. We are having these problems all the time. It is a serious situation; there are too many drivers — I do not want to get into that discussion. The idea of an exclusion zone poses several difficulties.

One of the biggest problems for the Department lies between the hours of 1.00 am and 3.00 am on Saturday night and Sunday morning, when the nightlife in Belfast empties out into the streets. Everyone can understand that young people come into Belfast for a night out — we have all been young. However, the problem is that they all leave the bars and nightclubs at the same time. In my many years as a private-hire driver, I often thought that I would be a millionaire if I were able to split my vehicle four ways. In any city, taxis cannot cover the busy period when bars close and people want to go home.

Based on the recommendation of the Office of Fair Trading, other cities have deregulated the licensing system, resulting in more taxis being introduced. Several years ago, for a three-week period, DOE officials marshalled taxis in the Shaftesbury Square area to ensure that people got home.

When the World Irish Dancing Championships took place in 2004 at the Waterfront Hall, people needed taxis, and the result was a free-for-all. Private-hire vehicles were trying to pick up people from the streets illegally, and my public-hire colleagues were trying to work a rank legally. It was chaos. However, Belfast City Council viewed Belfast public hire — the black taxis — as hoods and nasty people. I am an example of one of the good guys — and there are plenty of us — who work the streets, but we were rubbished. When the World Irish Dancing Championships took place again in Belfast in 2006, the DOE and the PSNI were present on the first day. DOE officials waved the black taxis forward, and the system worked well. I ask the Committee to seriously consider a taxi-marshalling scheme. Such a scheme works across the water. Although it would cost money, it is right that the Government invest in helping people who bring money into Belfast to get home at the end of the night.

I listened to the Minister of the Environment and other Members speaking during the debate on the Taxis Bill. It seemed that their minds were already made up that the Bill was needed and would be going through. I accept that that is their prerogative in a democratic society. However, the ‘Public Carriage Office (London) Conditions of Fitness Reconsideration’, 15 December 2005, page 6, states:

"Concern has been expressed that some members of the PCO (Public Carriage Office) appeared to hold views on key aspects of the reconsideration. The PCO does not consider it improper for members of their staff to hold such views on particular questions relevant to the reconsideration of this process: indeed, it would be surprising if staff whose jobs concern the regulation of taxis did not hold such views on such issues."

The following is the important sentence:

"What is important is that any such views should be subject to change in the light of new evidence available from the studies undertaken."

I hope that the Committee will recognise that my evidence and that of other individuals from the taxi industry constitutes new evidence.

Since 1994, along with every taxi driver in Northern Ireland, I have experienced a steady decline in income, because there are too many drivers. Some taxi drivers in Belfast may be earning less than the national minimum wage. Rather than considering that, taxi drivers tend to think about their next job. There was a time when waiting in a rank for 20 minutes would be considered a bad day for a taxi driver. Today, public-hire taxi drivers can wait for 30, 45 or 75 minutes for a fare. It is busy at 5.00 pm, and everyone wants more taxis between 1.00 am and 3.00 am because they want to get home in one piece after a good night out. I hope that the Committee will ask where those taxis go after those busy periods.

Public-hire vehicles are sitting in totally inadequate ranks, as the Committee will already be aware. Drivers of public-hire vehicles have to fight off widespread illegal p-uing, because if private-hire taxis do not have a fare and see an opportunity to grab one, they will take it.

If I can turn to the issue of taxi ranks —

The Chairperson:
We are approaching the end of your 15 minutes.

Mr Egerton:
I will make it quick. Today, and during a previous meeting, Committee members have referred to tourism, and I remind the Committee that tourists often meet a taxi driver before anyone else in Belfast to either ask where the Belfast Welcome Centre is, because they cannot find it, or to go somewhere. Therefore, it is essential that public-hire taxi drivers have somewhere to ply their trade — to wait legally and not be forced to sit in the middle of the road illegally where one can fall foul of the PSNI traffic branch.

I could say much more, and if any Committee members want to get in touch with me privately, I am more than happy to deal with any enquiries. I have not been in touch over the holidays because Committee members were entitled to a break, but, as the saying goes, the "honeymoon is over". I think that someone said that on television.

The Chairperson:
Thank you very much, Mr Egerton.

Mr Egerton:
I am free for another two hours, but I do not think that I would be allowed to talk for that long.

The Chairperson:
I appreciate that; you have kept well within your time limit. Members, let us focus on some of the distilled issues that have emerged from Mr Egerton’s evidence.

Mr Weir:
Thank you for your presentation, Mr Egerton. I wish to seek clarification on two matters. First, you mentioned the impact that the regulations would have on single operators, particularly in regard to costs. Can you explain the nature of those additional costs and their financial implications?

Mr Egerton:
An earlier DOE presentation to the Committee referred to those costs. We are aware of the costs that are associated with the three-year licence period, such as a three-day training module — taken for a day a year, or all together. The DOE has a better idea of the cost factors. A further example is that the reduction of a taxi licence from five years to three years means that, in a 10-year period, three licences rather than two will be required, which means more revenue for the Department but less for us. However, I cannot quantify those costs because, as I said earlier, we are being asked to sign a blank cheque.

I know that the Bill is enabling legislation and that much legislation will follow on from it, but my main concern is that the industry is dominated by a strong black economy; everyone wants to be a taxi driver, but only around 10% of those people want to go through the necessary formalities. I am sure that all Committee members know someone in their area who has done some taxiing. I think that a Committee member, speaking in the Assembly, referred to our industry as being low-wage and high-hour; that member hit it the nail on the head, because our status has plummeted. People say that one cannot go any lower, but we have. Perhaps this is the beginning of a comeback, but I cannot give you the detail of the costs. The Department may be able to do that.

Mr Weir:
You also expressed concern about the ending of the two-tier system in Belfast. A two-tier system operates in Belfast, particularly in the city centre. Why do you think that Belfast should be different from anywhere else in the Province?

Mr Egerton:
For a start, Belfast is a conurbation. Other cities have a two-tier system. What concerns me, as someone who is heading towards retirement, is that I see many people — particularly young ladies — who, if you will excuse the expression, "knock the bottle back" before they even hit the town. The partition between the driver and the passenger is very important, especially in the case of a female passenger.

I was in private hire for many years. I am no longer, or I could possibly argue the case for those taxis. I have noticed, since I came into the public-hire side, is that if a saloon can pick up off the street, incidents can happen, such as those that happen in cities across the water. We have taxi badges now, but I can remember a time when we did not. We got them because there were incidents, and I will put it no more strongly than that. That is my primary concern. The Department has a history of having to be dragged forward by the arms and feet.

The second point concerns public hire. If someone stops a taxi in the street and is not too sure where he wants to go, the taxi driver is supposed to know the way. I gained my knowledge through experience and the grey matter — forget about satellite navigation, which is a good toy, but goes no further. Most of the private-hire drivers rely on directions from their depot; a depot is a group instrument, because many drivers are in the business for four or five years. No one has ever studied how long the average working life is.

The Chairperson:
Excuse me, Mr Egerton, I am conscious of a few other members who want to ask further questions, and you have adequately answered that question.

Mr Weir:
Mr Egerton has answered my question.

The Chairperson:
I remind members to stay focused on today’s subject matter, please.

Mr Boylan:
Mr Egerton, thank you for your presentation. Can you elaborate on how the proposed taxi-marshalling scheme will be enforced?

Mr Egerton:
If you want an honest answer, enforcement is a bit of a joke, because there are only five dedicated enforcement officers. If you read the ‘Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency: Enforcement Strategy 2005–2008’, as I did, it is clear that the DOE is having a shake-up of enforcement. It seems to be more concerned with the overload of HGVs hammering along the countryside than with a lot of wealthy taxi drivers in Belfast. Enforcement is a real problem. If the DOE had a sophisticated enough computer system, similar to the one used for motor tax, that could make a difference. The DOE come out in Belfast and clear the streets of public- and private-hire taxis, and that speaks volumes about the number of taxi drivers. I hope that answers your question.

Mr Ford:
I have a couple of quick questions on your written submission. First, you clearly have concerns about hirings on behalf of another operator, and, in particular, the difference between you as a single operator and some of the larger companies. The way I read the Bill, as it is currently drafted, that would not be a problem as long as your friend is a fully regulated taxi driver. What particular problem do you see in handing over hirings?

Secondly, you highlighted clause 34, which relates to an appeals procedure that will stop short of court proceedings. Have you any evidence from across the water, or anywhere else, of how that might operate?

Mr Egerton:
Unfortunately, I do not. Liverpool, Birmingham and London and other cities have some licensing systems, but they are not as rock solid as they seem. My point is that the Department’s mindset seems to be that if taxi drivers are not happy, they can take the Department to court. There must be an intermediate system. If someone were to make an allegation about me after I took him or her from A to B, enforcement officers would pull me in.

The Department has my statement, and it would also hear my side of the story. It would then act as — I am sure that Committee members, as politicians, are aware of the phrase — "judge, jury and executioner". I would be on my own and in trouble because an allegation had been made. If I wanted to challenge that, I would need to hire a solicitor to accompany me. Quite often, drivers are not aware that such an allegation has been made against them until it is sprung on them.

To return to an earlier point: when the member asked about a "regulated driver", did he mean an affiliated driver? I need to be clear about the terminology.

Mr Ford:
Clause 4(1) states:

"A licensed operator (‘the first operator’) who has accepted a taxi booking may not arrange for another person who requires an operator’s licence to provide a taxi to carry out that booking as sub-contractor unless the other person is a licensed operator".

Mr Egerton:
I want to give the Committee a brief example, if I may. I am licensed as a sole trader. For instance, if I had a couple of bookings and was prevented from carrying those out, I would ask a guy who lives a couple of streets away from me — a mate of mine who works for one of the large depots — to cover those jobs on my behalf. However, my understanding is that because he is an affiliated driver with another company, he would not be able to cover those jobs. Please correct me if I am entirely wrong. However, as many of you gentlemen will know from political experience, such fine details — the nitty-gritty — must be clarified.

That primary legislation could be on the statute book for at least 15 years. If it is not right at the outset; unfortunately, I will be the victim. The taxi industry is far down in the pecking order of Committee priorities. It has more important issues to consider. However, it is number one on my agenda. I have listened to, and taken on board, what members have said about previous progress, and so on. I realise that on the grand scale of things, taxi drivers are far down the pecking order. However, on our scale, we are high up.

The Chairperson:
The Committee is determined to get such an important piece of legislation right.

Mr Egerton:
That is why I tried to interject with those points earlier.

The Chairperson:
It is crucial that the Committee hears from someone with your grasp of the issues, Mr Egerton.

Mr Egerton:
I have serious concerns about the Bill. I want to conclude my remarks, as I am sure that my time is almost up. I want to make the point that the Taxis Bill is an in-house document from the Department of the Environment. Across the water, councils and bodies have used firms that have specialist expertise. To the best of my knowledge, no one from the Department has ever come along and stood at my rank and noted that it took the taxi at the end of the rank 25 minutes, for example, to get to the front. I do not believe that such a survey has ever been carried out, although I may be wrong. That is a simple, basic survey that should have been undertaken.

Mr Gardiner:
Thank you, Mr Egerton, for your presentation. I wanted to ask you about the two-tier system. However, Mr Weir asked you about that, and you expanded on it. Will you consider installing a mechanism in your taxi to protect yourself from the sort of conversations that take place, for example, when you are leaving people home late at night, and they become abusive towards you?

Mr Egerton:
Across the water, several systems are available and have been installed in taxis. Some taxi drivers and operators slip a small video camera underneath their passenger seats. Some professionally installed systems are available as protection. However, an issue that occurred to me when I read through the documents was that use of such systems may have implications under the Data Protection Act 1998. Drivers can use small cameras in their taxis. However, the industry is vulnerable. When a driver has four young male or female passengers in the back, the trick is to get them home as quickly as possible. A few months ago, one of my colleagues had a nasty weekend. He was taking certain individuals home to Dunmurry when he was stabbed. Fortunately, he is out and about and working again. My colleagues who are sitting behind me know whom I am talking about.

Taxi drivers endure much abuse and what the police call "small incident violence", which is not reported. Another colleague asked a passenger for the fare, which was £4·00. What he received was a punch in the eye. It is as simple as that.

Mr Gardiner:
That is why there should be a recording. Taxi drivers do sterling work, and they must be protected. It is only a suggestion on my part that we try to assist on that.

Mr Egerton:
It costs money to install cameras.

Mr Gardiner:
I know that it does, but lives are worth more than money.

The Chairperson:
That is another issue that will arise. Let us distil the main issues. We discussed the two-tier system, its economic impact and the costs that, inevitably, will be passed on to drivers. There was also the issue of enforcement, which Cathal Boylan raised, and the associated issue relating to the taxi-marshalling scheme. Have we covered the main issues? It is my intention that the Committee will take evidence from the groups here today and will then ask the Department to respond later to the issues arising.

Mr Ford:
I think that Peter Weir mentioned an appeals process, which would stop short of moving into the normal court system. I am someone who, as far as possible, prefers to keep lawyers out of such matters. The issue merits consideration as regards alternatives or experiences we could learn from other places.

Mr T Clarke:
Mr Egerton touched on another matter. He suggested that Belfast taxi drivers wear badges and that others do not. Is that correct?

Mr Egerton:
No, it is not. To clarify that point; in 1981–82 the only identification that taxi drivers had was having their names on green discs on their windscreens, similar to the public-service-vehicle licence discs. A number of incidents occurred in the university area, and there was a considerable outburst from the press, in which the point was made that people wished to know whether taxi drivers were working legitimately — in those days, anyone could claim to be a taxi driver. That was when the badge scheme was introduced. Departmental officials will be able to go into greater detail on that matter. However, the badge scheme arose from specific incidents, and the DOE had to be dragged into doing something. Unfortunately, it has been Department’s policy down the years to be dragged into doing things.

Mr T Clarke:
I asked that question because I notice that the issuing of a driver’s badge is provided for in clause 24 of the Bill.

The Chairperson:
We can get clarification from the Department when we come to that issue.

Mr T Clarke:
The provision of a driver’s badge is in the Bill. I thought that there was a concern about it.

Mr Egerton:
My point is that everything that has come to us from the DOE over the years has had to be dragged out of it.

The Chairperson:
Do you rate this as progress?

Mr Egerton:
Many taxi drivers think that there should be two badges. If I am not wearing my badge, as I am wearing this security pass today, a police constable or a DOE officer can prosecute me.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for giving up your time to give evidence this morning, Mr Egerton. It has been very useful.

Mr Egerton:
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to address the Committee. I hope that the point I made about the Public Carriage Office will be borne in mind by the Committee.

The Chairperson:
Welcome, Mr Long and Mr O’Reilly. Please clarify who you represent and in what capacity.

Mr Stephen Long (West Belfast Taxi Association):
We will cover that in our oral submission, which will vary slightly from our written submission.

The Chairperson:
I ask you to please stay within the remit of the Taxis Bill. You will have a maximum of 15 minutes to make your presentation. As you were present during the previous witness session, you will know how the process works. Thank you, again, for attending.

Mr S Long:
Good morning. My name is Stephen Long, and I am the general manager of the West Belfast Taxi Association. I am accompanied by Stephen O’Reilly, who is the chairperson of the nine-member committee that is elected annually to look after the interests of all association members. I thank the Committee for today’s invitation. We are conscious of the time allotted for our presentation, but, in the interest of all present, we want to present some background information about the West Belfast Taxi Association.

The West Belfast Taxi Association has been in business since 1970 and has 230 members, on behalf of whom we are authorised to speak. All association members hold current public-service-vehicle licences, and each member is covered by a current Roads Service operator’s licence, issued by the Department of the Environment’s road transport licensing division, to provide multi-stage carriage fares and occasional private-hire contract services. This is the reason that the association is the only holder of a Department-licensed taxi-bus plate.

All our vehicles are wheelchair accessible and display plates allowing them to carry six or seven passengers, depending on the type of approved vehicle. I will show the Committee the type of plate that we use, which says "taxi bus".

An independent survey carried out in March 2001 demonstrated annual usage of our service by 5·8 million passengers. That was before the construction of our new operating centre in Belfast city centre — a gateway to west and north Belfast, for which we provide services.

Although the core of our service provision is based on multi-stage carriage fares, we also provide occasional private-hire services, specifically for tourists, and, through contract services, supply transport for the Belfast Education and Library Board and health trusts for passengers with special needs.

As well as being regulated by statutory agencies, the West Belfast Taxi Association is self-regulating through its constitution and code of conduct, which already contains the majority of the key elements in the Taxis Bill. To fully appreciate the services that we offer, we suggest that the Committee visit our operating centre and experience at first hand the workings of the taxi-bus service.

The association has the only hail-and-ride bus service in western Europe, and it can be a lifeline for anyone who lives, works or socialises in the areas to which we provide services. The association recognises the need for the Taxis Bill, and it was a key stakeholder in the consultation that led to the development of the Bill. We commend the DOE, especially the taxi review team, on the consultation held in March 2005. We also commend those who made themselves available for public and private meetings about the impending regulations.

Like many other service industries, the taxi industry is growing due, in particular, to the increasing number of tourists. In many instances, taxi drivers at ports, airports and bus stations give tourists their first impressions of the place we live in. Passenger and provider satisfaction must be achieved. Consideration must also be given to the economic effect of changes on providers. Any excessive increase in regulatory demands made on providers will, ultimately, lead to increased fares, which will impact on consumers, and the effect of that must be considered.

In some countries, increased regulation has led to an increase in illegal services: taxi users who do not have a sizeable disposable income elect to use illegal services, even in the knowledge that they are not properly covered by insurance, and so forth.

I will deal with certain elements in the sequential order in which they appear in the Taxis Bill and give the Committee details of our proposed amendments, additions, omissions and advice.

The association agrees in principle with the one-tier system for all. The more forms of amenable taxis there are, the better it will be for taxi users, especially those who socialise in the evenings. The more service provision there is, the lower the likelihood of low-level street disorder and antisocial behaviour, which will also benefit the accident and emergency services.

In dealing with the arrangement of the Bill, we suggest adding the term "taxi bus" and its definition to an introductory section. Taxi bus means the provision of a taxi service based on multi-occupancy of a vehicle by up to six or seven passengers with an agreed and publicised fare tariff and regulated under a Roads Service operator’s licence.

With regard to the regulation of taxi operators, we suggest the following amendment to clause 2(4)(a)(i): after:

"is a fit and proper person to hold an operator’s licence"

add

"and checked against the child sex offender register."

At the end of clause 2, which deals with operator’s licences, we suggest inserting the following new subsection:

"(9) Holders of existing Road Service Operators Licences who provide taxi bus services will

    1. Require no need for an additional operators licence;

 

    1. Not require any changes … in the conditions and criteria of a Road Service Operators Licence to operate existing services under new operators licence;

 

  1. Capping of charges for Road Service Operators Licence in view of service provision to public transport by licensed taxi bus providers."

At the end of clause 6, which deals with compliance with a departmental taxi-sharing scheme, we suggest the following new subsection:

"(4) Those who currently hold a Road Service Operators Licence will be permitted to operate a taxi-sharing scheme any additional taxi-sharing scheme in the defined areas of provision of transport already provided for must demonstrate the need for an additional taxi sharing scheme."

We suggest an amendment to clause 9(b) because the frequency of the services, the times of departure and the times to be taken on the journeys included in those services, and the number of taxis to be used in those services, is not realistic. Frequency of service is restricted in relation to the volume of traffic, specifically at peak times. Times of departure are based on demand. Times taken on a journey are restricted due to the length of journey and the volume of traffic. The number of taxis will be denoted by the number of vehicles on the operator’s licence.

In Part 2, which concerns the regulation of drivers of taxis, the Department needs to look seriously at the design of some vehicles that are used as taxis but have never been crash-tested as taxis.

We suggest that clause 14(5)(a) should be redrafted to:

"(a) give notice under same conditions of SORN information to the Department of the fact that the name and address of the new owner whose vehicle must be licensed in accordance with the taxi service they will provide under an operator’s licence."

At the end of clause 15, which deals with the identification of licensed vehicles, we suggest inserting a new subsection (7):

"(7) No licensed taxi will be permitted to carry signage that is not applicable to the service provision that the taxi is licensed to provide. Permitted signage should only indicate applicable type Accessible or Non-accessible Public Hire, Private Hire or Taxi Bus. Anyone who contravenes this regulation is guilty of an offence."

In clause 16, which deals with the regulation of fares, we suggest including a new paragraph (1)(c):

"(c) In accordance with Disability Discrimination no differential in application of taxi fares or charges irrespective of able bodied or non-able bodied usage."

We suggest that clause 19(1), which deals with taxis not being permitted to carry more than the prescribed number of persons, should relate specifically to the carrying of children of five years of age and under in taxis. Usually, parents and guardians keep children on their knees or in their arms. Primary legislation is required.

In Part 3, which deals with the regulation of drivers of taxis, clause 23(2)(a)(ii) should be amended to state:

"(ii) is a fit person in accordance with a General Practitioners examination and statement of same. The applicant is of good repute, which is determined by internal Departmental process. Applications will be accepted from a person who is classed as exempt under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Schedule 1 and 2 offences to be dealt with in accordance with the exemption under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The Department will consider applications from those not exempt under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Repute checks will also include checks against the Child Sex Offenders Register."

The part of the Bill that relates to training should be omitted, because of an ongoing consultation process relating to training needs. Training needs must be delivered in a format that includes current holders of public-service-vehicle licences who have low-level educational skills but are ideal taxi drivers.

Finally, the Department must protect under legislation those who provide taxi services in a similar way to that in which other public-service providers are protected. The West Belfast Taxi Association is willing and, within its capacity in the taxi industry, welcomes operational and other changes that are required. Compliance costs are paramount. In the light of that, the association suggests that an independent regulatory body or taxi commissioner be appointed to adjudicate on the introduction of fees and regulations in relation to the Taxis Bill.

The Northern Ireland taxi industry already faces higher costs for insurance and fuel than any other provider in England, Scotland or Wales. The much-needed establishment of an independent authority should be responsible for the seamless transition of the new Taxis Bill, particularly in respect of fees.

Representation in an independent authority should include urban and rural taxi providers from the following sectors: public hire; private hire; wedding and funeral cars; stretch limousines, including novelty vehicles; chauffeur-driven cars that provide exclusive services; and taxi buses. Representation should also be included on behalf of consumers.

From a user and provider scenario, the taxi industry is made up of people irrespective of social, economic, religious, gender, or ethnic background. In many ways, the industry is the first face of tourism. Although the Department has no direct responsibility for tourism, it needs to recognise its role. Any higher additional compliance costs will clearly bring increased driver and vehicle costs to consumers. It must be realised is that, while addressing illegal taxis, the Taxis Bill could lead to unachievable compliance costs, resulting in the further establishment of illegal activity.

The West Belfast Taxi Association thanks the Department for the opportunity to consult on the process. Furthermore, we are happy to discuss the contents of our document with any duly appointed responsible persons. We suggest that particular attention be given to the changes to the Bill that we deem appropriate.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your comprehensive overview. Will members indicate whether they wish to ask questions?

Mr Boylan: 
Thank you for your presentation. You mentioned the additional costs that will be incurred to bring taxis up to the standards required for carrying children. Will you elaborate on the taxibus system?

Mr S Long: 
Under the multi-occupancy arrangements, we provide a transport system on seven routes in west Belfast and one in north Belfast, which works on the basis of passengers sharing the price of the fares. The West Belfast Taxi Association transports 5·8 million passengers per annum, which is four times greater than the number passing through the George Best Belfast City airport. That is an indication of the service that we provide.

With regard to compliance costs, under the new legislation, there will be two increases in those costs over a 15-year period, because licence renewal will take place every three years instead of every five years. In addition, anyone over the age of 45 who applies for the renewal of a public service vehicle (PSV) licence must undergo a medical, which will mean two additional medical costs in that 15-year period also.

The training needs, which are still in the consultation process, will also involve additional compliance costs, and those costs, whether we like it or not, will be passed on to consumers. If it gets to the stage where those costs are outside the capabilities of taxi drivers, and fares become too expensive for consumers, illegal activity will start. It happens in other countries.

Mr Boylan: 
Would you elaborate on the carrying of children?

Mr S Long: 
The proposed legislation does not refer to children in taxis — I cannot see anything there about seatbelt wearing, booster seats etc. I suggest that the Department considers how children are carried in taxis. If they are not strapped in, children can act like missiles, and we are all conscious of the damage that can be done.

Mr Ford: 
I would like to follow up on a similar safety point. You referred to a design issue with certain vehicles: I take it that you are thinking about stretch limousines and new style multi-purpose- vehicle (MPV) people carriers, which are allegedly wheelchair accessible. Are you saying that PSV tests are not currently picking up safety issues in such vehicles?

Mr S Long: 
We would describe some of those vehicles as hybrid — their registration documents might show that they are van conversions. Such vehicles may have been tested to various national and European approval standards such as the M1 standard, some of which have been adopted here. However, seats could be removed after testing, as they are only framed in. Recently, I was in a private taxi, an MPV, which was registered to carry six passengers. I was sitting in the back, which had two rear seats, and there were three seats in front of me. Had there been an accident, and had the vehicle been had been rear-ended, I would have had great difficulty getting out.

Our advice to the Department is that it must be very careful when considering the type of vehicle to be classed as a taxi, especially if that type of vehicle has not been crash-tested as a taxi.

Mr Ford:
Are you saying that that issue is distinct from the annual PSV testing?

Mr S Long:
No. I am suggesting that when the annual testing is taking place, some criteria should be established for what is classed as a type-approved vehicle, especially one that has been adapted for people with special needs.

The Chairperson:
You mentioned the potential for a disparity in the fares charged to people with disabilities.

Mr S Long:
Legislation should ensure that there can be no differential.

The Chairperson:
Is there a disparity at the minute?

Mr S Long:
Yes. I do not have any evidence of that, or I would give it to the Committee. Some companies charge a premium rate for providing a service to people in wheelchairs, and that is a disgrace.

The Chairperson:
Please expand on the educational standard of drivers and how that should, or should not, affect their ability to obtain a licence.

Mr S Long:
The issue is not about a driver’s ability to get a licence. A consultation process is ongoing on training needs, and we have submitted a document, which we have also given to the Committee. I do not think that there can be legislation on training needs until the consultation process has been completed and every area examined. A lot of PSV drivers are good taxi drivers who keep their vehicles in pristine condition and provide a great service, but they may have training needs. However, they may not be able to get that training, so training must be given in such a way that drivers with low-level educational skills can avail of it and still work in the industry.

The Chairperson:
Have you ideas about the remit, or form, that an independent regulatory body should take? I do not want to bounce that one on you.

Mr S Long:
It should comprise representatives from rural and urban areas, including those from private-hire and public-hire firms, taxibuses and the chauffeur-driven, novelty-type vehicles I mentioned earlier, such as fire engines and former British Army vehicles. There must be representation from across the board, including the Consumer Council, which was referred to earlier. Consumers must get value for money — compliance costs could be incurred and could be passed on to them.

Mr Boylan:
Please clarify your remarks about clause 23(2)(a), and training delivery. Your comments, as regards low-level educational skills, are key. Would you also say something about schedules 1 and 2?

Mr S Long:
As regards schedules 1 and 2, former prisoners still have to list on their original PSV licence applications that they were convicted in, say, 1973, and, as they renew their vehicle licences, they have to continue to list those convictions. Other convictions are dealt with under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, and it is high time that everything was dealt with under that Act. If convictions are spent, that should be the case for everyone. We are talking about social inclusion, not social exclusion. People whose convictions are spent should not have to list those convictions continually.

Mr T Clarke:
I disagree.

The Chairperson:
The Committee can ask the Department to elaborate on that point, and quite a lot may depend on the nature of the offence — if I am correct. The Committee will ask the Department to clarify those matters later today.

Mr T Clarke:
The question is straight forward. If there is a conviction, the answer is either yes or no. If the answer is yes, the nature of the offence is immaterial. People have to be honest and complete the application form correctly. There should be no get-out clauses, regardless of the offence involved.

The Chairperson:
To clarify, I have seen two scenarios relating to convictions. In some cases, a conviction is spent, which has applied to taxi drivers; in others, they are not: it depends on the nature of the offence. Perhaps we can call in officials from the Department today to clarify, if possible, the different situations.

Mr Boylan:
Each witness is here today to submit challenges to certain clauses of the Bill, and it is up to the Department to respond. The only reason that I brought up the subject was to clarify the nature of the various offences.

Mr Weir:
Mr Long, it was probably a slight omission on your part, but you referred only to the child sex offenders register. Surely you should have referred to the entire sex offenders register, because it would be inappropriate for someone who had been placed on the sex offenders register for a sexual offence against a woman to be permitted to have a licence.

Mr S Long:
Perhaps that was an omission on my behalf. I should have said the entire sex offenders register. Any reference to the register was left out of the legislation.

I want to clarify a point that relates to the offences listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill. On the original application for a PSV licence, if a conviction is spent, that is that. However, even though the Department has been made aware of a conviction, a driver who wants to renew a vehicle licence annually must continue to list any convictions on the application. The association thinks that that is wrong. Once a driver has been awarded a PSV licence, there is no need to repeat that process at each annual renewal.

The Chairperson:
I take your point. Thank you very much for your time today. There are several issues to which the Committee must return.

I will summarise for the Committee the issues that I have identified, and members can draw to my attention anything that I have missed. The association highlighted child safety, training needs — especially for drivers of lower educational ability — and cost issues linked to the question of a regulatory body. If I picked it up correctly, there is also a query about the criteria used to define a taxi and a lack of clarity about convictions.

The next witness is Mr Robert McAllister. Good morning, Mr McAllister. You are most welcome. Thank you for giving up your time to be here today. I do not know whether you were present earlier to see the format that the meeting takes. The Committee is working within time constraints. You are welcome to give evidence, but will you please limit it to a maximum of 15 minutes— and you may only need 10 minutes. After that, members will question you on specific issues that you have mentioned. Further down the line, the Committee will take evidence from the Department or seek clarity where required.

Today is your only opportunity to give evidence to the Committee: you will not have a further chance to come back. Please start when you feel comfortable.

Mr Robert McAllister:
My name is Robert McAllister, and I am a concerned public-hire taxi driver whose vehicle is wheelchair accessible. I must congratulate the Committee for the Environment for listening to my concerns about the Taxis Bill.

My main point about the operator’s licence is that private-hire taxis that are not wheelchair accessible will be able to pick up members of the public without having been pre-booked. The only taxis to be Government-regulated in Northern Ireland are public-hire taxis that are wheelchair accessible. I agree to everything else in the Bill.

The Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, stated in the news media on 26 June that there was great demand for taxi services. I have to contradict that. Obviously, she has been misinformed by her officials.

The Chairperson:
Can I say, Mr McAllister —

Mr R McAllister:
Am I talking too quickly? I apologise.

The Chairperson:
It is not that. Please focus on the legislation that is before us. We cannot ask members to interpret what the Minister may or may not have said. Please bear with us on that.

Mr R McAllister:
OK. This is about public-hire accessible taxis. Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and London is the capital of England. Whether we like it or not, Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. A single-tier system like the one that the Department is trying to create in Belfast has always operated throughout the six counties of Northern Ireland.

I have already submitted written evidence to the Committee that the Department of the Environment has created a taxi monster in Belfast. The peak time for taxis is from 1.00 am to 3.00 am or 4.00 am on Sunday mornings. For hours before that, taxis are waiting in the streets doing nothing.

I work 70 hours per week — 10 hours per day — in a £32,000 wheelchair-accessible vehicle. I had to borrow £2,000 from a member of my family to pay for it. I find it very hard to break down the barriers. I believe that the national minimum wage is £5-odd per hour; public-hire taxi drivers in Belfast do not earn that much. As a taxi driver, you may be parked for an hour on your stand to get a run to Botanic Avenue. That brings in £2·70 or maybe £3·00. Then you come back and wait another half an hour. When you work out the cost of running the taxi and the other costs and payments, it does not add up. To be honest, I am seriously considering becoming unemployed. Public-hire services in Belfast are at a standstill. Drivers are not making a living.

Where is this coming from? Unfortunately, it is DOE mismanagement. There is a lack of enforcement. I have photographic evidence here that contradicts the assertion that taxi services are busy.

The Chairperson:
The Committee hears what you are saying. However, enforcement is for the Department. We have to stay focused on the legislation.

Mr T Clarke:
Part of the legislation that we are discussing relates to improving enforcement. That is why we need to stay focused on that point. I have sympathy for the taxi drivers if the enforcement is not there or is not being carried out correctly. However, the fact that it has been included in the legislation shows that the Department is trying to put that right. It might have been wrong; the wheel has been broken; but now the Department is trying to fix it.

The Chairperson:
There are enforcement issues there, and the issue of resources for enforcement has been raised.

Mr Boylan:
I am seeking clarification. I agree with some of Mr McAllister’s remarks, but I urge him to explain his concerns clearly.

The Chairperson:
If you do not mind, Cathal, the Committee will return to that later. Mr McAllister has not had his 15 minutes yet.

Mr R McAllister:
There was to be 15 minutes for me to make a presentation, and another 15 minutes for members to question me.

I will tell you where the main problem lies in Belfast. Again, I have photographic evidence. The main problem is that FonaCab and Value Cabs —

The Chairperson:
We cannot allow witnesses to mention specific companies or name individual operators.

Mr R McAllister:
I am sorry. OK, two major companies in Belfast city centre — [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
I am sorry, but you must bear with me. The Committee’s purpose is not to adjudicate on allegations, it is to hear evidence. If you have other specific issues, you can report them to the Department, and it will be up to the Department to investigate them. The Committee’s purpose is not to act as a court or to make judgements on what companies may or may not be doing.

Mr R McAllister:
OK. Excuse me for saying that.

It would be totally wrong to create a one-tier system in Belfast. If the Committee and the Department are going to allow private-hire, non-accessible taxis to pick up fares on the street, they must consider the following; a wheelchair user may stick out his hand to flag down a private-hire taxi on the streets of Belfast in a situation in which the taxi driver is not duty bound to drive a wheelchair-accessible taxi. In addition, the taxi driver will not have the proper facilities in his car to cater for that wheelchair user. Public-hire taxis have partitions in their taxis. About four or five weeks ago, a private-hire taxi driver in a non-accessible taxi picked up a job in Belfast city centre. Four males got on board and said that they were going to Andersonstown —

The Chairperson:
I think that that matter may be before the courts at the moment.

Mr R McAllister:
Again, I am sorry for saying that.

The Chairperson:
It may be helpful to give you an indication of the type of issues that we are dealing with today — it is up to you whether you pick up on any of them. The issues are: the regulation of taxi operators; the regulation of taxis; the regulation of taxi drivers; licensing; enforcement, which we have touched on, and miscellaneous aspects of the Bill. So, if there are issues in those areas that you feel you should dwell on, please do.

Mr R McAllister:
Public-hire taxi drivers in Belfast city centre do not have a lot of problems with the majority of the Bill. Truthfully, there are only two problems. The first is with private-hire non-accessible taxis being allowed to pick up people on the streets, and the second is the fact that public-hire taxis are currently the only regulated taxis in Northern Ireland. We are regulated by the Department, which seals our taximeters. We are the only sole operators, and we are under an operators’ licence as things stand.

In my experience, there are too many taxi drivers in Belfast city centre. To be frank, PSV licences are being given out like Guinness labels. I had to sit a PSV driving test before I could get my PSV licence. Now, a driver can apply for a PSV driving licence, which will be sent out in the post. The only requirements are a medical check, and a background check for any skulduggery that might be found, and then the PSV licence is posted out to the driver.

The Department has created a taxi monster throughout Northern Ireland. The Department was formed in May 1972 and if it had got its act together from the beginning, it would have created a two-tier system throughout Northern Ireland. A public-hire taxi in any place outside Belfast should be wheelchair accessible. A terrible amount of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on this. If the Department had got its act together from the start, we would not be sitting round this table today.

I want to make another point, which is relevant to the discussion. In the 1970s, before Stormont was abolished, taxi services in Belfast were run by the Belfast Corporation Transport Department. The time has come for the Committee to put taxi services back into the hands of Belfast City Council.

The Chairperson:
That may be a point well made, but, unfortunately, we cannot discuss it.

Mr R McAllister:
I understand that it cannot be discussed at today’s Committee meeting.

The Chairperson:
Yes.

Mr R McAllister:
What sense was there in my investing £32,000 on a purpose-built wheelchair-accessible taxi that can carry six people — five in the back and a ramp for use by someone in a wheelchair, someone using a Zimmer frame, someone who has suffered a stroke or someone who is elderly and has difficulty in walking? That taxi is purpose-built to accommodate disabled passengers. A private-hire taxi — without access for the disabled — does not cater for disabled passengers. That is the main reason that the two-tier system should remain in Belfast.

I have already mentioned other parts of Northern Ireland, where the one-tier system operates. Belfast, as a busy capital city, should be treated differently. The idea that there is a large demand for the creation of a one-tier taxi system, which will result in people loitering about the streets waiting for taxis, is totally unfounded. Committee members should experience travelling by taxi for themselves. Some members travelled with two public-hire taxis drivers from the T&G Section of Unite. I can honestly say that from 1.00 am to 3.00 am on a Sunday morning there is a peak-time demand for taxis, as there is in any other part of the United Kingdom. Every city in the world has that peak time. If there were a million taxis, they would not be able to cater for the demand during that peak period.

Usually, people want a taxi at the snap of their fingers. Unfortunately, that is a result of the pub-licensing laws in Northern Ireland. I realise that I am moving away from the issues under discussion today. All the bars and nightspots close at some time between 1.00 am and 2.00 am, at which time people flock onto the streets. That only accounts for three hours out of 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Therefore, I ask the Committee to go out with taxi drivers, any time before that three-hour period, to confirm what I have said.

I have provided the Committee with photographic evidence, which will allow members to see that taxi drivers are sitting in taxi ranks and that there are insufficient parking spaces for taxis. To my knowledge, Belfast is the only city in the world that does not have parking spaces for taxis in its city centre. Most people will have witnessed that — from Royal Avenue, Castle Place, Donegall Place and Donegall Square North; taxis have to double-park to get onto a nine-car taxi rank in order to accommodate people leaving Belfast city centre during daytime. That is bloody ridiculous.

Do any Committee members — if their parents are living — want their elderly mother or father, who may be infirm, to walk from CastleCourt to Donegall Square North to get a taxi? That is totally unfair. I realise that that is an issue for the Department for Regional Development.

The Chairperson:
I am not criticising your mentioning that issue, but I am merely advising you that your time is up. You have made your points in a very articulate way. Thank you for that.

Mr T Clarke:
You referred to Guinness licences. — [Laughter.]

Mr R McAllister:
Fortunately, I do not drink.

Mr T Clarke:
The regulation of licensing and the introduction of tests are an issue. You have said that there is a negative aspect to the rationing of licences, similar to the problems in the past with Guinness licences. Surely the DOE must be congratulated for its suggestion that testing for all taxi drivers should be introduced rather than it being a matter of a licence being sent out as the result of a postal application.

Mr R McAllister:I apologise for interrupting, Mr Clarke. That would be like my saying to you to close the door after the horse has bolted. Go out to the taxi industry, throughout Belfast, and you will see that there are too many taxi drivers.

Mr T Clarke:If I may pick up on that point, even taxi drivers who have been issued with a taxi driver’s licence will be regulated and asked to sit the test or go through that procedure.

The horse may have bolted, but the DOE is attempting to remedy the situation. You say that you are having problems with the industry and are not making money. The DOE recognises those problems and is addressing them to help public-hire taxi drivers.

Mr R McAllister:
The Taxis Bill makes no provision whatsoever for public-hire taxi drivers working from Belfast city centre. We feel that we have been let down by the Department of the Environment and other Government bodies. To put it bluntly, public-hire taxi drivers have been shafted by all the relevant Departments. The Taxis Bill contains nothing for public-hire taxi drivers. There are not enough public-hire taxi ranks, and there are too many taxis.

Mr T Clarke:
You say that there are too many taxis and not enough ranks. If there are not enough ranks, perhaps that is because there too many taxis? You are contradicting yourself. The DOE recognises that there are difficulties, and it is introducing measures to help and support public-hire taxi drivers.

The Committee understands that everything is not as it should be. The purpose of the Committee’s speaking to the taxi industry as part of the consultation process is to determine parts that can be tweaked or remedies that members can suggest to the Department of the Environment. The Committee must take on board what the taxi drivers say. We all see how many taxis are on the roads and realise that there are problems. The DOE is attempting to find a remedy, which it may not achieve, but with the support of the taxi industry and others, it might.

Mr R McAllister:
Taxi marshals work well in other parts of the United Kingdom, and I have emailed information to the DOE taxi review team. Taxi marshals are important, and they would be welcome during limited hours — for example, between 1.00 am and 3.00 am on a Saturday morning — when they could bring order and discipline. Taxi marshals should have similar powers to those afforded to the DOE’s taxi enforcement officers, of whom there are only five for the six counties of Northern Ireland, which is not acceptable, given the influx of taxi drivers across the board.

On a different point, public-hire taxis are the only regulated taxis. On their regular checks in Belfast city centre, DOE officials seem to target only public-hire vehicles and turn a blind eye to private-hire taxis, which have always picked up fares illegally off the streets because of lack of enforcement and control.

Mr T Clarke:
May I answer that question, Mr Chairman?

The Chairperson:
Only if it relevant to the proceedings.

Mr T Clarke:
I feel that I am representing the industry, and Mr McAllister is a member of the Committee.

[Laughter.]

The reason that the Committee is meeting is to discuss all those issues, including the lack of enforcement. All the issues are covered by the legislation, because the DOE is trying to fix a system that it recognises does not work.

Mr I McCrea:
During your presentation on the lack of revenue, you mentioned that earnings do not reach the minimum wage. Earlier, Mr Egerton said that, some years ago, public-hire taxi drivers were allowed to increase fares by only 10p. Can you give us a steer on what you feel would be —

Mr R McAllister:
To be honest, Ian, the problem is based on the fact that two main companies in Belfast city centre —

The Chairperson:
Please deal with the subject generally, without referring to specific companies.

Mr R McAllister:
Private-hire taxi services in Belfast city centre are picking up fares illegally off the streets. Would you like it if I put my hand into your pocket and took money out? I doubt it. However, that has been happening to public-hire taxi drivers in Belfast over years, and it is unfair.

The situation is such that I have to borrow money to enable me to go out to work. That is not acceptable: perhaps it is time for me to go down the unemployment route. The DOE has made a shambles of this matter, and it has put me and fellow taxi drivers in a position where we are at our wits’ end. I believe that the DOE has an agenda to force public-hire taxi drivers off the street and into the private-hire sector. That is disgusting, to be frank.

The Chairperson:
The Bill aims to achieve a level playing field.

Mr R McAllister:
There is no level playing field here.

Mr Weir:
Thank you, Mr McAllister, for your presentation. I am sorry that there are some areas that the Committee cannot discuss with you. I agree with Trevor Clarke’s comments, and, Mr McAllister, I appreciate your remarks about the frequent checks on — and heavy regulation of — the operation of public-hire taxis. The aim of the legislation should be to try to extend the scope of regulations.

Your main concern seems to be about the abolition of the two-tier system in Belfast. I was confused at one stage, because you seemed to be contradicting yourself. At one stage, you seemed to suggest that the same standards should apply throughout Northern Ireland and that there should be the same system throughout. However, you later said that the two-tier system should be protected in Belfast, because Belfast is unique. Those are slightly contradictory positions. Either Belfast is unique and needs a unique solution, or the whole of Northern Ireland should be treated in the same way.

Mr R McAllister:
Northern Ireland — whether some people like it or not — is a part of the United Kingdom, and this exercise would not happen in London. Belfast is the capital city and the busiest city in Northern Ireland. That is why we need accessible public-hire taxis on the streets for people who have disabilities.

Mr Weir:
Is London an appropriate analogy? Northern Ireland people have a tendency to think of themselves as the stars of the picture, but Belfast city has a population of between 250,000 and 300,000, whereas London has a population of between eight million and 10 million. Is Belfast so very different from medium-sized cities in other parts of the UK?

Mr R McAllister:
The DOE taxi review team conducted a study among consumers four or five years ago, but it was not aware of the increase in the public-hire taxi sector in Belfast city centre. Belfast public-hire taxis have been operating for years, and by-laws dating back to 1951 show that those taxis were the responsibility of Belfast Corporation at one time. Public-hire taxis are the only accessible taxis. There is no demand in Belfast for an end to the two-tier system.

Mr Weir:
The only —

Mr R McAllister:
Mr Weir, I do not wish to be rude, but please hear me out. The DOE and other relevant bodies are saying that the one-tier system is required to cater for the increase in public demand for taxis. That is untrue.

Mr Weir:
I know that you were restricted in what you could say about ministerial matters, but you were attacking the rationale behind abolition, because you believe that there is a need for the two-tier system in Belfast on the grounds of volume of business. However, you also said that you had photographs showing that, for the vast majority of time, some areas were not very busy.

Mr R McAllister:
That is correct.

Mr Weir:
If that is the case, and if, as you said, you are on the verge of unemployment —

Mr R McAllister:
I am not telling lies.

Mr Weir:
I do not doubt you for a second. However — if I may play devil’s advocate — does that suggest that the current system is working? If the current system is forcing current taxi drivers out of business, surely there is a need to change that system and introduce the regulations that pertain in the rest of Northern Ireland.

Mr R McAllister:
Are you saying, therefore, that the one-tier system should be introduced and that it should be acceptable for private-hire taxis to make illegal pick-ups on the streets of Belfast without any enforcement from the DOE?

Mr Weir:
I am not saying that.

Mr R McAllister:
That is the way that what you are saying is coming across.

Mr Weir:
Does your suggestion that there are currently too many taxi drivers chasing too few fares, except during those three or so hours at the end of a Saturday night and the beginning of a Sunday morning, not imply that the system in Belfast city centre is not working well? Ultimately, the number of taxi drivers who are currently operating will not be able to survive economically.

Mr R McAllister:
There are simply too many taxis. To be frank, it is similar to that scone that you are eating. If everyone in this room wants a slice, someone will not get one.

[Laughter.]

I know that that sounds funny, and you may laugh, but I am not laughing. A similar thing has happened to public-hire taxi drivers — we have been shafted. Our democratic and human rights have been taken away. The human rights of people with disabilities have been taken away. If legislation is passed that allows non-accessible private-hire taxis to pick people up in the streets, half the guys in the public-hire industry will end up in the private-hire industry. That is not a threat: private-hire non-accessible taxis will not be legally obliged to pick up a person who is in a wheelchair. If that happens, which I believe it will —

The Chairperson:
Excuse me, Mr McAllister.

Mr R McAllister:
No, I am sorry, Patsy, this is relevant.

The Chairperson:
I am sorry; other members want to discuss other matters, and given that time is short, I ask you to please make your point.

Mr R McAllister:
The public-hire taxi drivers will get their backs up because private-hire, non-accessible taxis will be allowed to be hailed in the streets. If, God forbid, a wheelchair user is at a public-hire taxi rank, the public-hire driver will be so annoyed that they will drive past that person. A private-hire taxi driver will not be obliged to pick up a wheelchair user, because their car is not equipped to do so. It is asking a disabled person to get out of a wheelchair so that they can get into a private car. It does not make sense. My experience tells me that all relevant parties concerned with making this decision are making a big mistake.

Mr Boylan:
Thank you for your presentation and for answering the questions. You mentioned that there are only five enforcement officers, and you also discussed your concerns about the two-tier system. The Committee recognises your concerns. However, I am a rural MLA, and I know that areas other than Belfast must be considered. Will you talk in more detail about the enforcement officers?

Mr R McAllister:
There are five taxi enforcement officers for Northern Ireland, but there are between 9,000 and 10,000 taxi drivers. Therefore, there is an insufficient number of taxi enforcement officers. The Department’s concern should be with the introduction of taxi marshals to maintain order and discipline. Those should have similar powers to check the dress code and manners of drivers as the taxi enforcement officers. Eventually, it will give the public confidence that there is a taxi marshal who will address their concerns at the time.

The Chairperson:
Thank you very much for giving the Committee your time, Mr McAllister; a fair bit of ground has been covered.

Mr R McAllister:
I am sorry that I am not well educated enough to be talking in front of people like you. Excuse anything that I said; I apologise.

Mr Boylan:
You got your point across.

The Chairperson:
It came across loud and clear. You appreciate that the Committee is constrained by the type of evidence that it can take. Thank you.

The major issues that came across today include the provisions and pick-ups for disabled people, as well as the old question of the two-tier system and how that can best be harmonised and addressed. Other major issues are: enforcement — the Committee has just heard that there are only five enforcement officers for the whole of the North; and the concept of marshalling, which had previously been raised by other witnesses. Much ground has been covered, but that is it in a nutshell. Again, thank you for your contribution.

Mr R McAllister:
I am sorry that I did not bring headache tablets for everyone. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
Do not worry; you were as good as a high.

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