Posted on May 16, 2013 1:40 PM   |   Permanent Link   

I want to welcome the introduction of the Taxi Regulation Bill 2012, which deals with the requirement to strengthen the enforcement of the taxi regulations and, in order to ensure a robust legislative framework for these new enforcement provisions, to replace the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. We are coming from an era in which there was a laissez-faire approach to taxi regulation, an era that was brought about by Bobby Molloy and the neo-liberal Progressive Democrats approach, and it must be ended - it has made life very unfair for honest taxi drivers trying to make a decent living.

This Bill, along with other measures, will make 2013 a defining year for the taxi sector, where it has finally been placed at the top of the political agenda. This Bill is part of a package of measures designed to improve the taxi sector for consumers and drivers alike. It is to that effect that a series of radical changes will take place in the taxi sector. There will be an online register of drivers so the State knows what driver is in each car, with verification of this by the customer. The rental sector will be reformed and we will have new vehicle standards and increased enforcement.

The programme for Government sets out a commitment to review and update the regulation of taxis to ensure that taxi services are recognised as a key component of the public transport system and to provide for a forum for discussion between the regulatory authorities and taxi providers. This Bill is a key step in honouring that commitment.

The genesis of the Bill lies in the recommendations of the taxi regulation review report from 2011, which was chaired by the Minister of State for Public Transport, Alan Kelly, and endorsed by the Government in January 2012. The aim of the review was to allow consumers to have confidence in the taxi system while also ensuring that legitimate and competent operators and drivers can be rewarded fairly by operating under a regulatory framework that is adequately enforced.

The review group brought together representatives of all of the key stakeholders - dispatch operators, taxi drivers and consumer representative groups, as well as relevant Departments and regulatory and enforcement agencies. It carried out a wide-ranging review of the sector which included a public consultation process involving an opportunity for written submissions on the review and for oral presentations from key stakeholder groups. A parallel public consultation was carried out by the National Transport Authority on vehicle standards.
I am happy that the measures set out in the Bill strike an balance between consumer interests and those of the operators in the industry and the need for regulatory bodies to be able to undertake proportionate and effective oversight. I am confident that the new enforcement provisions of this Bill will be broadly welcomed by the industry and consumers alike. The Bill represents the most comprehensive review of taxi regulation ever carried out in this State and one that I am pleased to support. I want to pay tribute to Minister Alan Kelly, who has done a great deal of hard work relating to the Taxi Industry, and he is to be commended for that work.

The new legislation will provide for a much more sophisticated enforcement toolkit. The enforcement regime to be adopted in future will be based on a graduated approach to tackling non-compliance, depending on the gravity of the criminal offence or compliance failure. It will also be designed to speed up the prosecution of offenders and the administration of justice.

The Bill ensures that enforcement and compliance start at the point of entry to the industry. Under Part 4 the mandatory disqualification of drivers from holding an SPSV licence will ensure that those with convictions or indictment for the most serious violent crimes will be excluded from the industry. A key recommendation arising from the taxi regulation review was the commencement of the legislative provision for mandatory disqualification.
The underlying policy principles for the mandatory disqualification provisions are, first, to ensure the welfare and the safety of passengers of small public service vehicle, SPSV, transport services, particularly in situations where a passenger is travelling alone in a taxi and, second, the proportionate application of the mandatory disqualification provision, to avoid any risk of legal challenge, on the basis of the constitutional right to earn a living, with regard to excluding persons from operating in the taxi industry.

The proportionality issue is addressed in the Bill through specifying the most serious of offences in the Schedule, for which conviction on indictment constitutes a demonstration, through their previous criminal actions, of the propensity of the person to harm another person; allowing for a tiered system of disqualification. This is based on consideration of the seriousness of the offences. The most serious offences are shown in Part 1 of the Schedule, namely, those which result in disqualification for life from the date of conviction. In Part 2 of the Schedule, there is a tiered system of disqualification periods in the Bill based on the severity of the length of the sentence imposed upon conviction, to which additional years of disqualification are applied. In less grave cases where a fine only or a suspended prison sentence is imposed, there is a 12 month disqualification period.

I welcome the appeal provision under the mandatory disqualification provision which is open to all, allowing the courts to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the suitability of individuals to hold a licence. In order to be proportionate, the mandatory disqualification provision is applied retrospectively. A 12 month stay is provided for with regard to licence holders who have convictions prior to enactment of the Bill to allow for those persons to appeal their disqualification to the courts. In the case of these licence holders, if the appeal is not made within the 12 month period, or if such an appeal fails, the person is disqualified and their licence stands revoked.
The Bill makes it an obligation for licence holders and applicants to notify the licensing authority of their conviction of any offence that falls under the mandatory disqualification provision. A licence applicant must supply this notification at the time of application. In the case of a licence holder the notification must be supplied no later than one month from the date of conviction, or in the case of convictions prior to enactment, within one month of enactment of the Bill. I believe that the provision for mandatory disqualification in the Bill will be a vast improvement in strengthening the existing vetting system carried out by An Garda Síochána in its administration of the SPSV driver licensing system.

For licence holders, the new demerit scheme under Part 5 of the Bill will deal with recurrent breaches of the taxi regulations. This scheme is based on the penalty points system for driving licences but there will be no overlap between the operation of the two systems. Under the SPSV demerit scheme, demerit offences, which constitute breaches of the taxi regulations, are specified in section 30. The period of endorsement of demerits on an SPSV licence is three years.

Disqualification by reason of demerits is automatic upon obtaining a total number of demerits equal to or exceeding eight demerits and the disqualification is for a period of three months. The appropriate date for commencement of a period of disqualification arising under the demerit scheme will be 28 days after notice is given for disqualification, or some further date to be determined in the courts in the case of an appeal against a conviction for a demerit offence that is relevant to the disqualification.

The Bill provides for fixed payment offences for contravention of the regulations on a range of regulatory matters that can be enforced by the NTA enforcement officers and, in the case of specified offences, also by members of An Garda Síochána. The level of fee payable for a fixed payment offence will be established by regulations made by the NTA. In addition, the fixed payment offences are also demerit offences under Part 5 of the Bill. Therefore, upon a fixed payment or conviction for a fixed payment offence, the specified number of demerits will be endorsed on an SPSV licence.

Conduct and compliance at taxi ranks is also dealt with in the Bill which provides for specific offences relating to a breach of the parameters for use of taxi stands that are specified in by-laws made by the local authorities. For example, there is the offence of standing with a taxi on a part of a public road adjoining a taxi stand when the taxi rank is full. Section 40, on closed circuit television at taxi ranks, will allow the NTA to use cameras, CCTV or other apparatus to build its evidence base with regard to breaches of the regulations and offences involving SPSVs at taxi stands.

The Taxi Regulation Bill is a major improvement on the existing legislative framework. It is a more precise statement of the powers of the regulator, the principles and process for licensing and assessment, and the operational standards required by licence holders. This will give clarity to potential new market entrants and to licence holders in the industry, as well as to taxi passengers in regard to the quality and standard of service they should expect. The Bill sets out clearly the consequences for applicants and licence holders who fail to meet suitability standards or for contravention of the regulations. The provisions of the Bill facilitate the development of a greater physical enforcement presence and capability to effectively enforce the taxi regulations. It will improve the speed of dealing with regulatory breaches through fixed payment offences and the new demerit scheme even before these issues reach the courts. The new enforcement measures and refinement of the regulatory framework contained in the provisions of this Bill are essential to support the future regulatory regime where only suitable and compliant drivers and operators can benefit within the SPSV industry and in order that passengers can be confident that SPSV services are of a high quality and are safe for travel.