Official Report (Hansard)

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 31 May 2007



Taxis Bill 

31 May 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 Tommy Gallagher
Mr Ian McCrea

Mr Bill Laverty (Department of the Environment)
Mrs Adele Watters (Department of the Environment)

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
The Taxis Bill will be introduced on 11 June, and Second Stage will take place on 25 June. If it is successful at Second Stage, its Committee Stage will begin.

We welcome Adele Watters and Bill Laverty from the Department of the Environment. Adele, you will brief us on the Bill, and I believe that next week you will come back to talk to us about the consultation process. Is that correct?

Mrs Adele Watters (Department of the Environment):
Yes, it is. Thank you, and good morning, Chairman and members. Today I will discuss the slides that members will find in their briefing packs.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to address the Committee again on the Taxis Bill, on which it is carrying out pre-legislative scrutiny. We have been asked to address the Department’s 2005 policy consultation. I understand that copies of the report on the outcome of that consultation are also in members’ packs.

I wish to cover three areas. First, I will give the context of the review in order that members may appreciate the outcome of the consultation. It will be useful if I explain briefly how taxis are currently regulated, particularly the two-tier licensing system. Secondly, I will set out the main problems relating to taxi regulation that the policies are intended to address. Thirdly, I will outline the main policy proposals that we consulted on in 2005 and summarise the main responses that we received. I will try to be brief. We will be happy to answer questions, and if there are any questions that we cannot answer today, we will return to them next week when we discuss the 2006 legislative consultation.

The slide headed “Taxi Licensing Structure” reduces a lot of complicated information into a relatively simple table. It makes it clear that there are two tiers in the current taxi licensing system: a public-hire tier and a private-hire tier. Essentially, public-hire taxis can do all types of taxi work. They can pick up people at taxi ranks; they can ply for trade on the streets; they can take bookings through a radio network; or they can do contract work. That is quite distinct from private-hire taxis, which can only operate on a pre-booked basis. To engage a private-hire taxi legally, the customer must make a booking by going into a depot or phoning, texting or emailing in advance. That is the broad distinction.

In the public-hire system, there are differences between the Belfast area and areas outside the city. Taxis licensed as Belfast public hire are seen, for example, outside the old Robinson and Cleaver building near the City Hall. There are approximately 400 of them in total. Many are London-style hackney cabs, although newer-style vehicles are now operating as well. They can do all types of work: accept bookings; fulfil contracts; stand at taxi ranks; or ply for hire. Although they are called Belfast public hire, as well as working in Belfast city centre, they can operate anywhere in Northern Ireland. However, they mainly operate in Belfast.

Taxis licensed as Belfast public hire must be accessible. By that, I mean that they must be accessible to wheelchairs, with a ramp and doors that are sufficiently wide and high to enable a wheelchair to be brought into the vehicle. The Department sets fares for Belfast public hire. Currently, those are the only fares regulated by the Department — fares for 400 vehicles out of an overall total of 10,500.

Taxis licensed as restricted public hire account for by far the biggest sector in the industry. These vehicles are typically seen in any town or city outside Belfast. Taxis licensed as Belfast public hire can be identified by yellow taxi licence plates, while those licensed as restricted public hire have white plates. There are between 7,000 and 7,500 restricted public-hire taxis in Northern Ireland; when the table in the members’ pack was prepared, there were 7,400. They can do all types of work outside Belfast, but if they want to operate in Belfast, they can only do so on a private-hire basis. That is because the restricted public-hire licence does not meet the standards required of Belfast public hire; generally speaking, taxis licensed as restricted public hire are not accessible, and the Department does not set their fares.

In Northern Ireland, there are just over 2,500 vehicles licensed as private hire, which means that they can only be used for pre-booked fares and contract work. Those vehicles are not permitted to stand or ply anywhere. Although the table states that they operate “anywhere”, that, in a sense, does not apply — such vehicles operate mainly in Belfast. To summarise, vehicles licensed as private hire must operate through advance bookings or contract work: they do not have to be accessible, and the Department does not set their fares.

The second slide outlines “Problems with Existing Taxi Regulation”. A number of the issues are fairly self-explanatory, such as the problem of too much illegal taxiing, by which we mean the use of vehicles that are unlicensed or uninsured or whose drivers are not licensed.

There is a lack of clear distinction between public-hire taxis and private-hire taxis. I have mentioned the different types of work that they are each permitted to do, but many of their features are similar — for example, they are both called taxis. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where what we call a “private-hire taxi” is allowed to be known as a taxi. Everywhere else in the UK, they are called private-hire vehicles to make it clear that they are distinct from the public-hire sector and are permitted only to do certain types of work.

Another confusing similarity is that, in Northern Ireland, both public-hire taxis and private-hire taxis can carry roof signs. Under many licensing authorities in the rest of the UK, private-hire vehicles are prohibited from carrying roof signs because that makes them look like public-hire taxis.

In Northern Ireland, many private-hire taxis have taximeters. The public-hire taxis in Belfast must have taximeters but, under some licensing authorities in the rest of the UK, private-hire vehicles are not allowed to have taximeters because that would make them look like public-hire taxis.

There is, therefore, a great blurring of the possible distinctions between the two types of taxis. That leads — along with a number of other factors — to vehicles licensed as private hire picking up people who do not have bookings. That is often termed as “p-uing” — picking up. P-uing has become increasingly difficult to prevent. Many people who wish to use taxis do not understand the distinction between public-hire taxis and private-hire vehicles. If they do understand that distinction, they do not care about it and they ignore it. People who are out for the night and want to get a taxi home do not care about whether they have a booking — they just want to get in. That means that the two-tier system, as it operates in Belfast, has become increasingly unsustainable. Also, now that people carry mobile phones, the distinction between booking a taxi in advance and immediately hiring one has all but disappeared.

Another problem is the lack of effective controls to address overcharging. I have mentioned that the Department regulates only a small proportion of taxi fares and, in the absence of fare regulation, it is difficult to assert a clear concept of overcharging. One could state that a person had been overcharged if he or she were charged more than the regulated fare. However when operators are free to set their own fares — as is mostly the case across Northern Ireland — and they can decide whether they want to charge extra at night, at weekends or on public holidays, it is difficult to address situations in which people feel that they have been overcharged.

A common complaint about the taxi industry in Northern Ireland is the lack of immediate-hire taxis at peak times. For example, in Belfast, there are around 400 taxis licensed as Belfast public hire. During peak times, such as at night and at weekends, when not all of those 400 taxis are operating, there is often a much bigger demand for the immediate hire of taxis. That is when vehicles licensed as private hire pick up much of the demand illegally.

I shall return to the issue of too few accessible taxis being available regardless of when disabled people want to travel. However, for the purposes of comparison, in the rest of the UK, about 50% of those vehicles equivalent to Northern Ireland’s public-hire taxis are accessible. Even with the size of the overall taxi and PHV fleet, it is an impressive number. At a generous estimate, only 10% of Northern Ireland’s public-hire taxis are accessible. Our accessibility rates are very low.

In Northern Ireland, there is no requirement for drivers to be trained or tested — the Department has no legislative powers to require that. Other problems stem from a lack of enforcement powers. For example, there is no power for Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) enforcement officers to stop a private car that they believe to be taxiing illegally. They can only take such action if they are working with the police, who have the necessary powers.

There is also a lack of powers to enforce against taxi businesses. I described a situation with unlicensed vehicles and unlicensed drivers. Sometimes, these drivers operate alone — they are individuals who have cars and think that they will do some taxiing to pick up some easy money. However, an awful lot of illegal taxiing goes on under the auspices of what local people think are reputable firms. These firms have depots, and the cars operating from those depots have the company names all over them and carry roof signs. Some of the drivers may be legal and licensed and their vehicles may be legal and licensed, but quite a number will not be. At the moment, in the absence of operator licensing, the Department’s power to prosecute those firms is very limited. Operators walk away from the problems, with the attitude that the illegal behaviour is nothing to do with them and the Department should go after the drivers.

That was an overview of some of the extensive problems with the existing taxi-regulation system. Last week, I mentioned the key players in the taxi review. The information that members have received on taxi users is fairly self-explanatory.

Also last week, we discussed the number of different taxi associations in the taxi industry. It is useful to recognise that in the taxi industry, there are very strong divisions between the different sectors. The sectors comprise Belfast public hire; restricted public hire; private hire, which operates mostly in Belfast; and the west Belfast taxibuses, which are licensed as a form of private-hire taxi. Each of those sectors has its viewpoint on taxi regulation issues. It is important to realise that they all come with their own agendas and vested interests.

Members have been given copies of the ‘2005 Policy Consultation Report and Summary of Responses’. We did not include copies of the consultation document, because it is quite a weighty tome. However, we can provide members with copies, and the document is available on road safety division’s website — The consultation document sets out 50 proposals, which cover all aspects of taxi regulation. For the benefit of the Committee, I have highlighted 12 that pick up some of the key points.

When we were devising the policy proposals, we grappled with two particularly difficult issues. First, what structure should the licensing system have? Should we keep the two-tier system? At the moment, we do not think that it works very well, but can we keep it and fix it? Alternatively, should we move to a one-tier system where there is no longer a distinction between private hire and public hire? The second issue is what measures could be put in place to increase the number of accessible taxis? At the moment, expecting taxi drivers to supply accessible vehicles voluntarily is not delivering an acceptable number.

The Department proposed that a two-tier system should be retained, albeit revised to differentiate to a much greater extent between the two tiers of public hire and private hire. For example, we proposed that what are currently termed “private-hire taxis” be renamed “private-hire vehicles”. We also proposed that roof signs on private-hire vehicles be removed.

There is a feeling that taximeters are a positive feature and that, when private-hire operators choose to use them, we should not stop them. We, therefore, proposed that public-hire vehicles must have taximeters and that private-hire vehicles could have taximeters if their drivers or operators wished.

The second key proposal was that all new public-hire taxis that come into service from 2008 must be accessible and that, over a relatively long period, we would work towards all public-hire taxis being accessible. Unlike taxis, private-hire vehicles would not have to be accessible. We were concerned that if we raised the standard for taxis to the extent that they must all become accessible, many operators would choose to move from the public-hire sector to the private-hire sector. Therefore, we proposed powers that require taxi operators to ensure that a percentage of their private-hire vehicles be accessible. In a sense, that was a fallback measure, which we did not propose initially to implement.

We wanted to require all taxis, but not PHVs, to work to regulated fares, and to require all taxis to have taximeters, but allow PHVs the option to have them.

Another key proposal was that all taxi businesses must have an operator’s licence. We proposed that an exemption could potentially be allowed for operators, particularly sole operators, in the rank-and-hail sector — those who work from taxi ranks and who pick up passengers in the street.

We proposed that it be an offence for an operator to use unlicensed vehicles or drivers. We further proposed that all new drivers be required to pass a taxi-driving test and do job-relevant training, and that all drivers — including existing ones — be required to complete disability training.

I have already mentioned the proposal that roof signs be removed from PHVs. Enforcement officers will be given powers to stop cars that are suspected of being involved in unlicensed taxiing, and there will be tougher penalties for taxi-licensing offences.

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

The accessibility proposals were, generally, opposed by the taxi industry. Its strong view was that people with disabilities do not need to use taxis because a lot of transport is specially provided for such people and, therefore, there is no need for any additional accessible vehicles.

On the other hand, section 75 groups, such as the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (Imtac) and the Equality Commission, were in favour of better provision for people with disabilities. However, they were concerned that a requirement for a 100% accessible public-hire taxi fleet would be too much of a burden on the taxi industry. As a result of the consultation, both the taxi industry and groups that represent people with disabilities asked whether we could come up with proposals on accessibility that form a unique Northern Ireland solution to that problem. I shall revisit that later.

Proposals on fare regulation were broadly supported. In fact, those who supported those proposals asked why — if they are such a good idea — apply them to public-hire taxis only. The view was expressed that those proposals should apply across the board to taxis and private-hire vehicles. Similarly, the proposals on taximeters were supported, but some respondents said that we had not gone far enough and that those proposals should apply across the board.

Operator licensing proposals were welcomed widely. Indeed, of all the proposals, almost everyone was keen on and signed up to operator licensing. However, concerns were expressed about costs.

There was strong support for the proposals on operator-licensing offences and for the Department’s being able to pursue operators who use unlicensed vehicles and drivers. The Department proposed that there should be a due diligence defence when drivers or vehicle owners present operators with licences that appear to be valid but turn out to be fake. Operators must be protected.

Respondents were keen to go even further than the proposals on the taxi-driving test and training. At present, new drivers must undertake disability training, and respondents felt that all drivers, not only new drivers, should take full training courses.

There was strong opposition to the removal of roof signs from private-hire vehicles. Both taxi operators and taxi users have become accustomed to roof signs. When people are leaving a club, for example, signs are helpful because the taxis that those people ordered can be identified. Respondents were not interested in signs appearing along the sides of vehicles.
New powers for enforcement officers and stiffer penalties were also welcomed.

When the Department examined the outcome of the policy consultation, it set out to revise its key proposals. Respondents were asked:
“Do you agree with the proposal to keep a revised two-tier system as described?”
Respondents came down narrowly on the side of a two-tier licensing system. However, they also stated that they wanted all taxis to be able to pick up fares, have roof signs, work to regulated fares and have taximeters, which sounds like a one-tier system. Therefore, the Department interpreted the responses as saying that people were in favour of a one-tier system, which is the system that I have just described.

If a one-tier system is in operation, no one, including people with disabilities and those representing them, wants all taxis in Northern Ireland to be accessible. The Department proposes that all operators should have a percentage of accessible vehicles.

There was broad agreement on the proposals that all taxi fares should be regulated, all taxis should have taximeters, and operator licensing should be introduced. Sole operators who work in the rank-and-hail sector supported proposals for their exemption from operator licensing. All other respondents disagreed with that proposal, stating that everyone who provides a taxi service should be included in the operator-licensing system.

If a one-tier system is implemented, the Department proposes to retain roof signs on all taxis.

The Department decided to keep its options open on driver testing and training for existing drivers. There has been subsequent consultation on that.

The Department believes that the revised package of measures that emerged from the consultation process addresses the main concerns about taxi regulation and has achieved the best possible balance between competing interests. The Department will never keep everyone happy all the time, but it feels that it has gone a long way towards satisfying most interested parties. Most stakeholders welcomed the proposals, which were viewed as being uncontroversial. Costs are still a concern, and the Belfast public-hire sector does not support any of the proposals that they feel would open up the city’s taxi industry to more competition.

That ends my rather lengthy presentation.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your comprehensive presentation.

Mr I McCrea:
I have a couple of concerns, but I am sure that the answers to those will be teased out as the change to the one-tier licensing system takes place. First, I am concerned that private-hire firms will be forced into the new single-tier licensing system. One must accept that some taxis from the private-hire sector are operated illegally as public-hire taxis — it would be silly to think that that does not happen. However, some firms operating solely on a private-hire basis will have no desire to be part of the new system because they feel that it will have an adverse effect on their businesses. As things stand, private-hire firms are content to set their own fares, and if passengers want to pay those, or higher, fares to other firms, so be it.

Secondly, I am also concerned about the condition and age of some public- and private-hire vehicles. I know that there is nothing that the Department can do about how old a taxi is, but, perhaps, we could introduce age discrimination legislation for cars. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
Section 75 for vehicles.

Mr I McCrea:
There must be a limit on how old a car can be before it is deemed inappropriate for public or private hire. Has an agency been set up to enforce that?

Mrs Watters:
Even though it has been said that private-hire firms will be forced into a system with which they are not happy, the one-tier licensing system would permit them to do public-hire work. However, some private-hire firms might say that their preferred mode of business is through pre-booked work and fulfilling contracts. They would be permitted to carry out public-hire work if they wished, but they would not have to do so.

When we talk about private-hire companies, we are — for the most part — talking about companies in Belfast. At present, the majority of those companies have a large percentage of vehicles licensed for public hire. The Department is not getting a lot of feedback from the industry indicating that firms do not want to move into the wider regulatory regime.

The Department proposes to regulate the maximum fares that firms will be permitted to charge. An upper price limit will be set, and charges higher than that limit will be considered as being too much. The Department also wants to consider ways in which it can allow firms the freedom to charge lower fares. Therefore, if operators are setting their own fares at present, the only change would be that the Department would tell them that they could continue to do so as long as those fares are not greater than the limits set.

The Chairperson:
What would be the consequences for an operator who charges more than the limits set by the Department?

Mrs Watters:
They would be committing an offence under the regulations, which would be made under the provisions of the Bill. The Bill would give the Department the powers to set limits, and anyone who charges more than those limits would be committing an offence.

In its consultation paper, the Department did not state any specific proposals to bring in age restrictions for vehicles. The Department did propose a measure in the 2003 initial draft proposals discussion document, but it was quite complex and did not get a good response. The Bill would give the Department powers to introduce age restrictions for taxis, but, at the moment, there is no intention to exercise those powers. The Department might want to consider age restrictions as a means to improve vehicle standards.

Under the current arrangements, DVA and the PSNI are jointly responsible for the enforcement of taxi regulations. DVA can draw on a team of 21 enforcement officers who have overall responsibility for bus, lorry and taxi enforcement. However, within that team of 21, a dedicated team of five is responsible purely for taxi enforcement. There is no need for a new enforcement body, because such a body exists.

Mr I McCrea:
The issue of taxi enforcement must be examined across Northern Ireland; it is not specific to Belfast. Given that there are 10,000 taxis in Northern Ireland — and that number may increase if the changes are introduced — I cannot see how five people can make a big difference should taxi drivers continue to operate under the existing system.

Mrs Watters:
That is true. However, when I said that five people are dedicated to taxi enforcement, all 21 members of the team can be drawn on for enforcement exercises in which large teams take part. DVA is conscious that taxi enforcement must not simply be a Belfast issue; it must apply throughout Northern Ireland.

The Department envisages that the introduction of new IT systems, which are required to support the provisions in the Taxis Bill, will facilitate much more from-the-record enforcement by DVA using information that it holds on taxis. Enforcement does not have to be all about men in yellow coats out on the roads.

Mr I McCrea:
Or women.

Mrs Watters:

Mr Boylan:
Much of the information on the consultation process relates to Belfast. What kind of response did you receive from rural areas?

Mrs Watters:
The Department received many written responses from taxi operators and drivers in rural areas. As part of the consultation, a big effort was made to engage with the taxi industry. Some 1,800 full consultation documents were sent to taxi operators and statutory consultees, and a summary of the consultation document was sent to every licensed taxi driver, which, in 2005, amounted to approximately 18,000.

The Department made a conscious effort to ensure that all interested parties in rural and urban areas were aware of the consultation. During the process, many of the 13 consultation meetings were held outside Belfast. Although they were advertised as public meetings, members of the public did not attend. The main attendees were people from the taxi industry.

Mr Boylan:
I asked the question because I am conscious that unlike full-time taxi drivers in the cities, most taxi drivers in rural areas have other occupations and taxi only on a part-time basis.

Mrs Watters:
It was not a Belfast-centric consultation; it was held across Northern Ireland.

Mr T Clarke:
All in all, the proposals must be welcomed. As someone who lives in a rural community, I know that taxi drivers there are under pressure from illegal taxis. Therefore, I think that they will, in general, welcome the proposals.

The single, probably minor, issue that concerns me is driver testing and training. The Department’s suggestion to keep the options open for existing drivers is wrong. Testing and training should apply to existing drivers. Otherwise, there will be an influx of people wanting to get their licences before the new regulations come into force.

Mrs Watters:
That has already happened.

Mr T Clarke:
It has happened, and that is why I mentioned it. When the taxi-driving test was abolished in the past, people rushed out to get licences. New training programmes should be introduced, with the requirement for refresher training every three to five years.

Mrs Watters:
Today’s presentation captures where we were at the end of the 2005 taxi consultation process. The Taxis Bill, as it stands, has powers to require drivers to undergo training or testing, and that applies to drivers across the board. The Department could decide to apply those powers to new drivers or to new and existing drivers, as the Bill has the full range of powers. Earlier this year, DVA consulted on how it proposed to use those powers. The consultation proposals included the suggestion that there should be periodic training for existing drivers.

The Chairperson:
Consultees from the taxi industry have called for stretch limousines to be subject to PSV requirements and to conform to type-approval standards. Is that not the case already?

Mrs Watters:

Mr Bill Laverty (Department of the Environment):
At present, stretch limousines do not meet PSV requirements. Every taxi is subject to annual PSV testing. The requirements state that a vehicle must be right-hand drive. As stretch limousines do not meet that requirement, they cannot be awarded a PSV licence.

The Chairperson:
Given that many EU nationals are coming to live in Northern Ireland, and are bringing their cars with them, the requirement that a vehicle must be right-hand drive to be granted a licence must be changed.

Mrs Watters:
A left-hand-drive vehicle can be licensed here in the normal way for private use. It simply cannot be licensed as a taxi.

The Chairperson:
I appreciate that. However, some of the people who operate stretch limousines here import them from Germany and the United States. Those people should not be disadvantaged by a quirk in the legislation.

Mrs Watters:
Under the Taxis Bill, the Department would have powers to make regulations for taxi vehicles. It wants to determine whether American stretch limousines, or other unusual types of vehicles, could be granted PSV licences where it is safe to do so and where appropriate conditions can be attached.

Mr Laverty:
The Taxis Bill would give the Department enabling powers to make regulations to license taxis by class and use, and that would include different types of vehicles, such as vintage wedding cars, stretch limousines, and so on. Obviously there would be regulations appropriate to those vehicles, providing that they were safe and roadworthy.

Mr T Clarke:
That those vehicles cannot be included is an unfair caveat. Just because they are left-hand drive does not mean that they are unsafe. If a left-hand-drive vehicle can pass an MOT test, it should be able to pass a PSV test also. The Committee should not bury its head in the sand and ignore the number of left-hand-drive vehicles that are on our roads. Taxi operators run good businesses and are very enterprising, and I have absolutely no problem with that. The DOE must recognise that such businesses exist, and some way should be found to make it easier for those operators to keep their businesses in line, as opposed to operating illegally. The majority of the vehicles are probably illegal because they do not meet the requirements for a PSV licence.

A left-hand-drive vehicle can pass an MOT test. If a left-hand-drive vehicle has passed an MOT test, it is considered safe and roadworthy. Therefore, it is unfair to assume that such vehicles are unsafe simply because they happen to be stretch limousines.

Mrs Watters:
There are several problems with stretch limousines. It is not just the fact that they are left-hand drive. There are concerns with visibility, the turning circle and other technical matters. The Department must be confident that it is appropriate and safe to license those vehicles as taxis. Mr Clarke made the point that if a vehicle is good enough to pass an MOT test, it should be good enough to be used as a taxi. However, the issue is that the Department would be licensing stretch limousines in order that they could be hired out to members of the public. It is appropriate that there be a distinction.

The Chairperson:
To be fair, that is not the issue here.

Mr T Clarke:
That is not what I meant. A PSV test differs from an MOT test in that the PSV test checks the appearance of the interior and the exterior of a vehicle and requires the vehicle to be equipped with a fire extinguisher. If a car were in a reasonable condition, it would not be hard to bring it from MOT test standard to PSV test standard. The process would involve only simple measures. We cannot hide behind the excuse that it is much more difficult for stretch limousines to meet regulations. For example, Chambers Coach Hire Ltd in Magherafelt has brought in new vehicles, American Humvees, and it would be ludicrous to assume that they could not be brought up to the necessary standard. The vehicles under discussion are so similar that no difference can be made between them.

The Chairperson:
We want to facilitate safe business; we do not want to place obstacles in the way.

Mrs Watters:
Absolutely. The Taxis Bill would provide much more flexible and extensive new powers that recognise the many new types of vehicles that wish to work in the industry.

Mr T Clarke:
A range of vehicles should be included.

Mr Boylan:
Are there any other proposals relating to emissions tests and environmental concerns? They would be key as well.

Mrs Watters:
Our proposals contain nothing to suggest that taxis should have to meet higher emissions standards than those for other vehicles. In due course — perhaps in five or 10 years’ time — new powers may be introduced that could permit the Department to set higher standards. We were conscious of ensuring that the fees system was sufficiently flexible so that, in future, cleaner, greener taxis could be treated more favourably and could, for example, be subject to lower licence fees.

As part of the policy process, we talked to our colleagues in the air quality unit of the Department of the Environment about whether it was necessary and appropriate to improve the air quality standards for taxis. In essence, the response that we received was that the pollution problems in Belfast are not caused by cars or by taxis particularly, and that it was not an issue that really needs to be addressed.

Mr I McCrea:
Given that these vehicles cover many more miles than normal cars over the MOT or PSV period, the issue of emissions testing should be examined more closely — and sooner rather than later. The Committee must also keep an eye on the stretch limousines issue.

Mrs Watters:
The Department has consulted on the licensing of stretch limousines. The taxi review team did not carry out the consultation, but it was aware of it.

Mr Laverty:
We estimate that some 100 stretch limousines operate in Northern Ireland, and there were calls for them to be legalised. Therefore, about a year and a half ago, in response to calls from the trade, the Department issued a consultation paper that included proposals for the licensing of American stretch limousines, which would involve setting aside some of the requirements under the current PSV regulations. The proposals were well received, and the Department is considering the responses with a view to possibly amending the current PSV regulations. Alternatively, the Department may wait for the introduction of the Taxis Bill, which will result in an overall review of all the PSV regulations that apply to taxis. That would give the Department an opportunity to consider emissions standards for taxis.

We are aware that Transport for London introduced emission standards. Therefore, a precedent has been set that could be taken into account when the PSV regulations are being reviewed.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for coming. The Committee Clerk has reminded me that you will be appearing before us next week. The consultation on the taxi industry has been done well.