I beg to move
That the Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/302) be annulled.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That the Taxi Operators Licensing (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/303) be annulled. — [Mrs Cameron (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment).]
The policy content of the rules is closely linked. The Committee commenced its scrutiny of the policy underlying both of these statutory rules at its meeting on 20 June 2013, when the Department of the Environment provided a synopsis of the responses that it had received to the public consultation on its proposals. Members were content that the Department had responded appropriately to the views expressed by submissions and agreed that it should proceed to draft the legislation.
Some concerns were raised, however, in respect of the proposed timing of the introduction of the legislation. The Committee believed that these provisions should not come into operation until September 2014, rather than September 2013 as suggested by the Department. This delay would enable the Committee to carry out a more thorough scrutiny of the numerous statutory rules required to implement the provisions of the Taxis Act 2008. It would also ensure that the suite of changes came together as a cohesive and coordinated package. The Committee was also concerned that the Department should use this period to engage with all sectors of the taxi industry to resolve any outstanding issues and to raise awareness of the impact of the changes delivered by the new legislation.
The Department brought the SL1 proposal for both of these rules to the Committee on 27 June 2013. Members welcomed the Department’s willingness to listen to the views of the taxi industry on this issue and its commitment to determine a more detailed timetable outlining the key steps and milestones, including consultation time frames and SL1 target dates for the whole package of legislation. On this basis, the Committee agreed that the Department should make the statutory rules.
When the Minister met the Committee on 24 October 2013, the Committee raised concerns that, while members still supported the reshaping of the taxi industry to provide a higher level of service to all its customers, there were still issues relating to the costs of the new requirements. Members believed that some sectors of the industry would be disadvantaged and thus less able to cope with the increased financial commitments. Those related specifically to the costs of new roof signage, taximeters and printers, and the training for the new driver tests. All of those additional costs, together with a much higher level of competition, have the potential to result in the loss of jobs or livelihoods in the Belfast public hire sector. The Committee urged the Minister to look carefully at the proposed legislation to see how that sector could be facilitated.
The Committee agreed to explore that issue further during a meeting with departmental officials in December 2013. Members suggested that a possible way forward might be to introduce an exemption in the single-tier licensing proposal in order to maintain the existing two-tier system within a certain radius of Belfast city centre, possibly during certain periods of the week. That exemption should be accompanied by a much higher level of enforcement within that radius. While officials agreed to take those proposals back to the Minister, he has consistently reiterated that he does not believe that there would be any merit in accepting them. The Department has proceeded to lay the rules, based on an unaltered policy position, and they have been referred to the Committee for agreement.
The Committee does not believe that the two statutory rules represent the best way forward in this situation and, accordingly, agreed to table these motions to ask the Assembly that they be annulled.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. You caught me by surprise there. I will speak against the motion and in support of the Minister. This has been an ongoing saga. We have been through it quite a bit. It has been over and back, and people have been lobbied by different organisations on all sides of the debate. I think it fair to say that there are strongly held views on all sides.
A number of years ago, the Department did some consultation work and research, and talked to the public about their view on the issue. It turned out that 84% of those surveyed supported the Department's proposals. The Consumer Council, Disability Action, Women's Aid, Victim Support, Belfast Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, Pubs of Ulster and Visit Belfast supported them.
For members of the Committee who live outside Belfast, it is important that we remind people that there is life outside Belfast. There are operations and systems outside Belfast that work perfectly well. Looking in on it, some of us view the system in Belfast as kind of strange, to say the least. I have been contacted, as I am sure other Members have, by the North West Taxi Proprietors, an organisation well known to some Members. They have clearly stated their support for a single tier. They said that they have invested heavily because they believed that the issue had been resolved. They also clearly support metering and a fairer and more uniform system of charging across the system — I understand that, because the public in the place that I know best, Derry, definitely support that. I can only imagine that that is the same in Belfast.
The regulations simplify a very complex system that most who have to use do not really understand. I know from experience of trying to get a taxi in Belfast that it is quite difficult, especially if you are leaving a pub or nightclub. It seems almost impossible at times to get to where you are going because you have to phone a taxi and wait for it to come, whereas, in any other place in the world, you can just flag a taxi down.
You can also just flag down a taxi in any other place in Northern Ireland. The Minister is attempting to bring Belfast and the North into line with the rest of the world, where visitors from different countries can easily get around the city. Tourism is a major part of the growth potential for this city and the whole of the North. If tourists do not know how to get around the city, the system is not the best. That is highlighted most starkly when you get off a plane at Belfast City Airport. It is strange that you cannot walk outside and get a taxi. The new system means that you have to ring somebody, which, I think, tourists do not understand. I think that what the Minister proposes is a fairly simplified —
I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate his point, and I will come to it in more detail. He mentioned the airport, but this does not change that situation. Those are the regulations for the airport rather than the lack of a single tier or otherwise.
The airport recently changed its system and has moved to one that allows for more private hire than public hire. The Member is right on that point. However, my point stands: if it is private hire, members of the public should still be able to flag down a taxi as they walk out of the airport, as you would in any airport in any other place in Ireland, Britain or the world. We have to understand that it is a strange system, and the Minister is trying to simplify it.
There has also been strong support for the proposals from Disability Action and other disability groups, because they recognise that the regulations on wheelchair access are 30 years out of date. They need to be updated very quickly.
Some of us can probably predict what will happen with the vote. That is unfortunate. The weight of public opinion and of all those who are interested in the issue is with the Minister. Public hire taxi firms have the right to be angry and annoyed, and they have lobbied very strongly, but public opinion is with the Minister on the issue. It is a shame that, if people in the House get their way, we will not move towards a single-tier system, a system that makes sense for all the reasons that I have outlined. After today, we need to consider seriously how people can move around this city easily, a city that tells everybody that tourism is a major growth sector for it. It is bizarre that we now tell people that it is very difficult to get around the city, and that is what we are advertising today.
I am against the motion, and I support the Minister. I hope that, after today, we can begin a sensible conversation about how we move forward.
It has been a rather long and ill-fated journey for the Assembly and the Department to this stage and the annulment of the regulations. I have been on the Committee for a little over six months, and the issue of taxi legislation and regulations has been brought up a number of times. I am sure that that would have been considered unlikely seven years ago, when the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 was passed by the Assembly.
We need to remember how we reached this situation. As was said, much of our taxi legislation was and still is outdated. Naturally, modern society has requirements that are very different to those of the early 1950s. In my opinion, it was only logical that steps should be taken to modernise it. That was the background to the Taxis Act 2008, which, it is important to point out, received the unanimous support of the parties in the Assembly at that time. The difficulty was, however, that it was primarily enabling legislation, so, whilst the framework may have been voted on and agreed, as the Department has learned to its detriment, the real detail and changes were not. The only part of the Act that has commenced so far is the introduction of taxi operator licensing. The Department even delayed much of the reform programme to give taxi firms extra time to prepare for the reforms, just to get to this stage, where the changes are only a matter of minutes away from being thrown out.
There is a range of concerns with what the Department has proposed, especially from public hire taxi operators in Belfast. Whilst I have sympathy for their concerns, I believe that what they have argued most against would have given the consumer a better deal. That belief has been supported by countless consumer and trade representative bodies. For instance, under what the Department had proposed, the consumer would have had greater choice, and, essentially, the hiring of a taxi in the middle of Belfast would have been much less restrictive and confusing than it currently is.
One of the regulations — probably the most contentious change of them all — is the introduction of a single-tier taxi licensing regime. It would have seen the removal of the restriction on private hire taxis plying for hire in Belfast, a privilege that all taxis outside Belfast enjoy. To the vast majority of taxi users, that would have been most welcome. The Department, too, had sound reasoning for seeking to make many of the changes it had proposed. No doubt, it saw the challenges of effectively having a hierarchy of taxis in Belfast, and the Minister will probably raise the problems of the demand and the confusion for people looking for taxis in the city centre on nights out. Importantly, the current enforcement policies are not properly targeted on addressing the more important issue of illegal and dangerous taxis, so I am sure that the Minister will make reference to that as well.
Whilst what has been proposed may have sounded logical, somehow Sinn Féin and the DUP have changed their positions quite significantly from what was agreed in 2008. The then Minister, Arlene Foster, was the main advocate of what the DUP is now so vociferous in opposing. You only need to look at Hansard, especially around mid 2007, to see that. Indeed, as I have said, the regulations have been bandied about for around seven years. The deliberations on the regulations have been a mess and, ultimately, have resulted in the debate today. What I know is that the ongoing uncertainty is damaging the taxi industry and creating confusion. Correspondence that I received over the weekend iterated the view that some taxi operators thought that legislation was already agreed. Many taxi operators have already invested in taxi systems and taximeters on the basis that legislation is going forward. So, while some operators are working to new regulations that are not yet legislated for, others are lobbying for change. It seems that a bit of a mess has developed over the years.
I detect a sign of resignation from the Minister and his Department that the current proposals will not win through and they need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe that drawing board is a welcome place to be. Will the Minister outline where he will take it from here? The Minister cannot afford to leave it like this.
The Ulster Unionist Party will also support today's prayer of annulment. We do so not because of any major disagreement with the proposals — on the whole, we agree with the broad policy intent, and our position has remained fairly consistent — but because, as the Minister will no doubt be well aware, the regulations as currently drafted will have had a disguised yet hugely significant unintended consequence. I am, of course, talking about the impact that it will have had on the bus lanes in Belfast. If we were to move to a single-tier regime immediately, the number of vehicles allowed to use the bus lanes would swell as private hire taxis would suddenly took advantage of the opportunity open to them. That would not benefit public transport, as buses would find themselves caught in more traffic, nor would it benefit cyclists, whom we, collectively, have been successful at drawing into the city in increasing numbers.
Whilst, at this stage, this is a redline issue for my party for why we cannot support a single-tier regime, it is something that, I trust, Minister Durkan will contribute to rectifying. I know that it is something that the Minister for Regional Development would be keen to find a long-term remedy to. Unfortunately, until a compromise —
Sorry, I am just finishing. Unfortunately, until a compromise is found and despite the other benefits being proposed, my party will not be able to formally support any such statutory rule.
As legislators, we must be objective when making judgements, always bearing in mind what is best for the largest number of people in Northern Ireland.
We must also listen to public opinion. The motions for annulment are calling on the Assembly to make a U-turn and throw out previously agreed legislation that was supported by the public to regulate and improve taxi services and to give customers more choice. During Committee discussions, I did not hear any compelling arguments to object to the statutory rules for a single-tier system. I therefore oppose both motions on behalf of the Alliance Party.
The Taxis Act was passed by all parties in April 2008 as enabling legislation to bring our outdated laws into the 21st century and was welcomed by the public and businesses. It is right and proper that the Act allows the taxi industry a period of time to prepare for the proposed changes, but common sense would say that seven years must be long enough.
In June 2013, the Committee first considered the synopsis of the public consultation responses, which were vastly supportive of the proposal for the single-tier system. Naturally, we all agreed that the Department should proceed with drafting the legislation with the caveat of a delay of a further year to give the industry more time to meet new requirements. The Department agreed and duly brought the SL1s, which the Committee then agreed. The sense in the Committee at the time was that the public really wanted the changes and that the long gap between the 2008 Act and implementation of the new single tier and the whole raft of regulations was becoming unacceptable.
Somehow, from late October 2013, DUP and Sinn Féin members, following lobbying from Belfast public hire, began expressing concerns about the costs of equipment and the notion that competition may drive the Belfast public hire out of business. They proposed an exclusion zone in Belfast for black taxis, which the Minister refused. I agree with him. It will cause more confusion for customers if they can wave down a taxi only in certain areas in Belfast. Belfast public hire represents around 5% of taxis in Northern Ireland and around 10% of taxis in Belfast. There is no rationale for the Assembly to ignore overwhelming public support for a single-tier system in favour of keeping the monopoly for Belfast public hire.
In proposing the motion to annul the regulations, DUP and Sinn Féin will allow one small sector in the taxi industry to prevent progress for the whole of Northern Ireland. Competition is always good for customers, as it drives up quality and maintains price competitiveness, and any sector in the industry that provides high-quality services should not be fearful of levelling the playing field for fairer competition. An email from North West Taxi Proprietors called on all MLAs to act in the best interests of the taxi industry as a whole, indicating that the Consumer Council, Imtac and others have agreed with the majority of the taxi industry that single tier is the best way forward for customers.
In any big city, such as London, New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo, where taxis are an essential means of transport for the public to move around the city, people take it for granted that they can hail a taxi anywhere, at any time and without having to book in advance or walk to a taxi rank. Tourists coming to Northern Ireland cannot understand why empty taxis will not stop for them. If we want to promote tourism, we need a taxi service fit for purpose.
I understand what Mrs Overend said about bus lanes, and I know that, during Committee Stage, she objected to the prayer of annulment. I call on the UUP to think carefully. The decision on whether to allow taxis to go on bus lanes is based purely on the judgement of the Minister for Regional Development. In many cities where there are bus lanes taxis can use them only to drop off and pick up passengers; otherwise, they are not allowed to use bus lanes. That is one way that we should be implementing it. There is no need to say, "Right, we want to reject single tier as a whole." I urge UUP Members to think carefully and not to throw all this out but to support our party and the SDLP in rejecting the motion.
I rise with a heavy heart in certain regards. For many of us who have been involved in the Committee, and some of us have served our time since 2007, it is a pity that we have come to this position, because, as the Deputy Chair highlighted, this issue has been ongoing for quite some time.
While there are differences of opinion and of emphasis in the Committee, all of us had hoped to see a resolution. Certainly, a range of concerns about Belfast has been directly raised in the Committee for a year and a half at least. Indeed, mention has been made of the legislation, and as somebody who went through every painful session on the legislation a number of years ago — I think that Mr Boylan was in the same position — I can confirm that it was acknowledged even at that stage. While the general principle of the single tier was something that in broad terms people could buy into, DOE officials indicated in their evidence in 2007 that it would not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, we had quotations from Hansard in the Committee indicating that this is something that may or may not necessarily apply to Belfast, but, indeed, we were looking at the wider sphere of Northern Ireland. The peculiar problems in Belfast have been acknowledged and accepted for a long time.
I would like to respond to an issue raised by the last Member to speak. There is a range of issues, and I think what we need to do to move forward on the taxi issue — I agree with Mr Eastwood on at least one point — is to have a sensible consideration and, indeed, a sensible compromise. I am not going to put words into Mr Eastwood's mouth, but I agree with him on that, and I think that there is the basis for a sensible solution, but it has to be holistic.
There are issues to do with Belfast, with single tier, with enforcement and with metering itself, which is still a source of concern. People in the industry have concerns that the metering side of things should be got right; it is due in by September of this year. There are also concerns over, from a Belfast point of view, the bus lane side of it, not least the impact that it would have on the growing cycling population. I agree, for instance, with remarks made by Northern Ireland Greenways, who have concerns about that.
What we need for a solution is an overall package. There is no point trying to extricate particular elements of this, implement them and leave other elements outstanding. I agree, for instance, with Mrs Overend, who, while she welcomed generally a lot of the stuff on it, highlighted a very important issue as regards the bus lanes side.
I am sorry, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, but I did not quite hear that.
At the end of the day, the single-tier system will have to come in. When does the Member suggest that that should happen, because that is the view of the House as expressed in the 2008 Act?
I do understand that there was a lot of discussion in Committee. Reference was made to the raft of issues, such as metering and receipt printers. To be fair to the Department, it has brought forward a range of arrangements, time after time, following delay after delay, for the industry to adapt to. This was all meant to be happening in 2013, but, in 2015, we are still no further forward.
Rather than dwell on the amount of time that it has taken, we need to try to get this right and get an overall solution that deals with a range of the issues, such as metering, bus lanes and the single-tier system.
There is a lot in the regulations that I do not have any problem with. Therefore, I think that they can be the basis of a sensible way forward. Similarly, mention was made of the North West Taxi Proprietors. Although I bow to the superior knowledge of Mr Eastwood, who has lifelong experience in that regard, it is clear that we are essentially dealing with a Belfast problem. There are differences in Belfast that do not exist in the rest of the country. From that point of view, if a statutory rule simply dealing with outside of Belfast had been brought in, I would not have had any problem supporting it. However, the peculiar situation of Belfast is that you have the range of taxi drivers.
This is sometimes misconstrued as being about public hire on one side and all of private hire on the other side. I have met probably all the interested parties. A couple of the major firms are very much in favour of single-tier system, as, indeed, are some solo operators. If you talk to the Belfast Private Hire Proprietors' Association, for instance, which deals with a wide range of taxi firms that would probably be described as the smaller firms in Belfast — not the big two — you will hear that it does not believe the single-tier system to be fit for purpose. It is a much more diverse situation than people will sometimes present.
If we were starting from a completely blank page, and there were no taxi industry in Belfast, we might come to different solutions, but we also have to deal with what is there at present. The widespread concern that there has been, from public hire and a lot of private hire, is that, rather than the utopian idea of this, simply in the centre of Belfast, leading to increased competition, it will essentially become a duopoly via the back door. You will have a market that is overwhelmingly dominated by two major companies.
There is no doubt that, if I were in the shoes of those major companies, I would be arguing very much for a single-tier system on that basis. However, if you have a situation that instead of increasing competition restricts it, that is not in the consumer interest. I have met the Consumer Council and some of the disability groups. They have taken at face value and accepted the idea that merely removing certain regulations, or putting in new regulations, will simply lead to increased competition. They will freely admit that, if they get further evidence on that, this is not a hard and fast position for them.
All public hire taxis are disability-friendly; they are constructed on that basis. However, it is much more of a mixed bag on the private hire side. If it means that large numbers of public hire are effectively put out of business, and the quantum of taxis that are disability-accessible is reduced for the city centre, it will not increase competition or increase the opportunities for those who are disabled. That is why this is not straightforward.
Mr Weir, I really cannot understand why you have been arguing that the situation will be less competitive or that there will be more competition for the public hire companies and that they are not viable. At the moment, they do not travel around; they stop at taxi ranks and they pick up passengers. They can continue to do that. People can still go to taxi ranks to get black taxis.
With respect, there is a potential danger that a market gets flooded by a couple of major companies. That is a major concern, but I do not know whether that will happen. The reality is that if you damage one aspect of the market and remove a certain level of competition — that is the practical reality — you reduce consumer choice and you move closer to a duopoly situation. That is a very real concern.
There is no doubt, with respect to the various sectors involved in this, that there are very strongly held views. If we are all being honest, we would recognise that all those at various levels in the taxi industry will argue for their own point of view and, to some extent, will argue in their own self-interest. That is human nature. In terms of these statutory rules, we have something that is not entirely fit for purpose. We are, perhaps, in an unfortunate situation because of the nature of statutory rules: had this been something that was amendable, amendments could have dealt with it. When we are left with a statutory rule, we either have to accept it in its entirety or, alternatively, not move forward. That is something that the Minister would admit; it is in the nature of the system.
Sad to say, despite the effort and goodwill that has been put in, we have not reached a solution as yet. We are relatively close to that situation because there are ways in which we can find a compromise that is not in the interest of any particular sector and, to be perfectly honest, would not be the blueprint that the public hire companies or the private hire companies — the major companies — would put forward. There are sensible solutions that can be produced. If the statutory rule was passed today, for example, it would take effect in June. Time should not be the major problem because, if there is goodwill on all sides and a sensible approach, we can reach a solution relatively quickly. That would allow a timetable that is very close to what is there at present.
From that point of view, these statutory rules, unamended and unchanged, are not for the overall benefit of the taxi industry and neither, in the long run, are they in the interests of the consumer, at least as regards Belfast. As an Assembly, we have no other option today but to say no to these rules. There will be a commitment from all of us, however, on all sides, to work together to find a "sensible solution", to quote Mr Eastwood accurately. There is something out there that can be grasped. There have been discussions already over the last year and a half which point in the rough direction of that solution.
From that point of view, I urge the House to allow a sensible solution to be produced which can deal not simply with the issue of the single tier, but with the issues of the bus lanes and metering to try to make sure that all that is put together as a proper package that we can all agree on and unite around and which everybody in the industry can at least live with.
Thank you very much, Principal Deputy Speaker. I will take this opportunity to congratulate you on your election. Just because I did not vote for you does not mean that I do not wish you well.
It is unfortunate that we have reached this stage and that there is this prayer of annulment. We all look forward to a sensible solution to this particular issue. In all walks of life, whether it is business, the professions, politics, the Church or whatever, people find change difficult. I can understand in particular the decision of the public hire practitioners. They remind me of my old profession as a barrister because they are single practitioners who are subject to the market. In fact, when we were at the Bar, we were told that we were like taxi men, because we just picked up the next fare or the next case.
I hear a voice behind me saying that we were not metered.
Some people think that we were over-metered.
I do have sympathy, because change has come to the legal profession, and it is coming to those engaged in the taxi business and so forth. The public hire people have given great service to Belfast. I have used them frequently, and it is a quality service. They will be able to compete in the future whenever the single tier comes in. It is inevitable; the question is over how it will come in, how quickly it will come in, what shape and form it takes and what stages there will be etc. However, as Ms Lo said in her address to the Assembly, we have been dealing with this for the past seven years. That is a long period of time to allow any transition. People involved in this business have to realise that, to fulfil the wishes of the Assembly in the 2008 Act, it is necessary for us to reach an end point.
There are other issues involved, one of which is wheelchair accessible taxis. Public hire taxis are in a pole position to — I use this term properly — exploit the market, bring the capacity they have to that market and assist people who are disabled. That is why Disability Action is supportive of these changes. I also understand very clearly why the tourist industry is very supportive of these changes. In any other city in the world, you just stick your hand out and you get a taxi. In Belfast, alas, for whatever historic reasons, you cannot do that with all taxis; you can only do it with public hire ones.
We have to look very carefully. Inevitably, this prayer of annulment will be passed. That is unfortunate, but we have to look to the future and see how we bring this about. I am not convinced that the exclusion zone system which is being put forward would work. If we are going to approach it, we have to think very carefully about the practicalities. I am not sure that it would be particularly enforceable, but we have to get our heads around this and find, in the words of Mr Eastwood, a "sensible" solution.
The Minister has acted quite properly. He has brought this to the Committee and, as a consequence, to the House, and he has confronted all of us in this Chamber to say, "If we are going to fulfil the will of this Assembly in terms of the 2008 Act, then we have to act, and act reasonably quickly." He was right, therefore, to bring forward his regulations. It was right and proper for him to do that. Ministers are constantly criticised in this House for not making decisions. This Minister has made decisions. The decision that he has made is being thwarted by parties in this House. That is unfortunate, but there should be a short period of reflection after the inevitable happens here. I am supporting the Minister on this today.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. I am not a Member of the Assembly's Environment Committee, but I have been approached by a number of organisations who are frustrated at the length of time it has taken to deal with this issue. That delay has cost them jobs as a result of the work that they have done to prepare for changes that are scheduled to come into play.
I had hoped to get a bit of a clearer understanding today as to why the DUP and Sinn Féin feel there is a need for further delay on this issue.
I must admit that I am not much clearer than I was when the day started. I have heard talk of anti-competition and some reference to self-interest. However, my understanding of the proposals is that they are really to create a level playing field and robust regulation and licensing for the taxi industry in Northern Ireland, which my colleague, the Chair of the Environment Committee, Anna Lo, supported today.
I have heard a number of organisations make the case for why robust taxi regulation and licensing is urgently needed. I have heard of a number of problems that the lack of regulation and licensing is causing. In particular, I have had first-hand evidence of taxi equipment installed to dangerously poor standards that has led to a number of cases of electrical fire caused by faulty wiring. That is putting drivers, drivers' families, customers and the general public in Northern Ireland at a serious health risk. We have heard of man-in-a-van, backstreet installation putting the public at risk and putting reputable companies, which the vast majority of those in our taxi industry are, at a disadvantage because of their efforts to comply with the proposed regulations. That is why there is an urgent need for progress on this issue. We need to address what appears to be a genuine public health risk.
We want a fair, easy to understand, consistent system of taxi licensing with fixed taxi rates. We also see this as an opportunity to improve the current situation that we are met with at large-scale events and in our city centre. Certain taxis can be hailed, but others have to be booked in advance. The feedback that I am receiving is that a single system, in which all taxis can be hailed, would make for much better coming and going at large-scale events —
Does the Member agree that, at these large-scale events, we have a consistent problem with the number of people who park near the venue? I am thinking particularly of Ulster Rugby. People tell me that they end up driving over because it is so difficult to get a taxi when they come out. Surely, if we had single-tier licensing, that would enable us to get large crowds away from events quickly afterwards. That would be a very progressive and welcome move, especially for residents of, in this example, the Cregagh estate.
I appreciate that. Looking at the big-scale events has to be in the mix of any solution. As regards Ravenhill specifically — I am sure that the Minister will be smiling at this point because my colleague Lord Morrow has put in question after question on Ravenhill — one of the issues is the contractual situation between Ulster Rugby or Ravenhill and a particular firm or firms. There is full involvement of private hire in that situation. I suspect from what Mrs Cochrane said that it is not one that is working out particularly well, but the single-tier system would not resolve the particular issue at Ravenhill, which is a separate one. However, I agree with the general point that, if we are looking at an overall solution, factoring in the issue with some of the larger events has to be part of the overall mix.
Mr Weir said that there is a contractual issue with private hire, but that had to be put in place because you cannot hail taxis on the road. When coming out of the ground, there are not a lot of taxis coming along that are able to pick you up. You have to phone and book them to an address. So, Ulster Rugby books taxis to the ground in order for them to be able to pick people up. It definitely would be a solution because it would not have to be just one company.
I thank the Member for giving way — sorry, I thank the Member for her intervention. I was glad to act as chair for that mini-debate.
We have covered an important issue. The important point is indeed that that simplified system would help large-scale event organisers, residents and taxi companies themselves to better understand and better operate in that context.
Another issue that has been raised and that is close to my own interests is the impact that the new licensing and regulations would have on the use of bus lanes by cyclists. I am chair of the all-party group on cycling. I welcomed Mrs Overend's contribution up to a point. I thought that it was balanced on the issue, but the comments about an immediate concern for cycling were somewhat irresponsible, given that the Ulster Unionist Party Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, is responsible for the regulation and enforcement of bus lane use. Indeed, he has available every power, if and when these regulations and licensing are enacted, to respond to that issue absolutely to ensure good control and enforcement of bus lanes, which would lead to priority being granted to cyclists, given the widespread support in the Assembly for the cycling revolution, which Danny Kennedy rightly wants to lead. We can respond in ways that safeguard the progress being made for cycling in bus lanes. For the Alliance Party, single-tier licensing and regulation is ultimately about bringing Northern Ireland into line with modern standards and practices.
In closing, I again ask the DUP and Sinn Féin to set out more clearly why they are blocking and delaying this legislation, when many organisations are clearly calling for its urgent delivery. Indeed, I ask them to set out what exactly their plan B is to address the urgent need for reform to and assistance for our taxi industry.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I echo the congratulations from my colleague Mr Maginness to you on your election.
I welcome the opportunity to reply to this prayer of annulment to the Taxi Licensing Regulations and Taxi Operators Licensing (Amendment) Regulations, and to put forward the strong case for modernising the taxi industry with the introduction of improvements to the taxi licensing regime across the North, thereby implementing further elements of the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. Those Members who voted in the Environment Committee against the two sets of regulations have consistently stated that they have no significant issues with the majority of the regulations. The issue that causes them concern is that of introducing a single-tier licensing regime in Belfast, a change that would permit all taxis, not just Belfast public hire taxis, to pick up passengers on the streets of Belfast.
All Members will agree that taxis are a vital part of our economy. Every year, they greet many of the million-plus visitors who come here. They make tens of thousands of trips to bring people to and from work or safely home after a night out. They also help some of our most vulnerable people, young and old, to travel in the way that most of us take for granted. The majority of our taxi legislation, however, dates back to the early 1980s. In fact, in Belfast, it goes back even further to by-laws introduced in the early 1950s. The problem is, quite simply, that the legislation is not up to the task of effectively regulating taxis in the 21st century.
The Taxis Bill was therefore introduced by a previous Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, who, in doing so, quite rightly stated that single-tier licensing was a "fundamental tenet" of the Act. The merits of the Act were debated and approved by the House, without division, and Royal Assent was granted in April 2008. The aims of the Taxis Act are to raise the standard of taxi services, reduce illegal taxiing and improve compliance. Its broader objectives are to promote road safety, improve accessibility for older people and people with disabilities, and facilitate fairer competition for taxi services.
In short, it is about creating a safe, fair and fit-for-purpose industry that allows those involved in it to make a living from it.
To date, two significant parts of the Act have commenced: taxi operator licensing, which came into force in 2012 for the first time, makes operators accountable for the operation of their business and the actions of their drivers; and the taxi-driving test and periodic training, which came into force last October, aligns the taxi industry with other professional driving industries and will help to raise standards and improve road safety.
Aside from the regulations that we are debating today, the remaining elements of the Taxis Act include the implementation of taxi meters to enhance customer protection and the introduction of a new specification for wheelchair-accessible taxis that will update the current 20-year-old specification. That will improve the safety and comfort of the taxi journey for people with disabilities, while ensuring, through the introduction of a maximum fare, that they, and indeed all customers, are not overcharged.
At present, we have essentially two regimes: one dual-tier system in Belfast, where private hire taxis must be pre-booked, thereby restricting customer choice; and a single-tier regime everywhere else, where consumers can choose either to hail on the street or pre-book. The current dual system in place in Belfast is broken. It cannot adequately address a number of problems that the Act was designed and introduced to tackle.
First, the general public, residents and visitors alike are confused as to what taxis they can use in different circumstances. In many instances, they do not care, so long as the taxi is licensed and will take them home. A single tier will remove that confusion.
Secondly, there are insufficient numbers of taxis that can pick up on the street in Belfast — a particular problem at peak periods — to meet demand and ensure public safety and order. A single tier will address this deficiency in the current market by significantly increasing the number of taxis that can be hailed.
Thirdly, a great deal of DVA enforcement activity currently addresses licensing offences that exist only because of the operation of a two-tier licensing system in Belfast. That is time-consuming for DVA and serves only to reduce the resources available to address the illegal and dangerous taxis that are unfortunately out there. That type of enforcement activity plays into the hands of illegal taxis and those operators and drivers who are licensed but choose to break the law. This cannot continue. A single tier will remove illegal PU-ing by licensed taxi operators and drivers and free up valuable resources so that more serious offences can be tackled more often in a targeted and robust manner. A single-tier licensing system will increase choice for consumers, increase competition and increase standards across the board.
Support for a single tier comes from a wide variety of organisations. In addition to three consultations indicating a preference for a single tier, 913 letters from Belfast private hire drivers and 4,200 postcards received from private hire taxi passengers and submitted to the Environment Committee all called for the implementation of single-tier licensing. Furthermore, as Mr Eastwood told us, the Consumer Council wants it; disability groups, including Disability Action, want it; Women's Aid and Victim Support want it; the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, Pubs of Ulster and Visit Belfast all want it. Why? Because they see the clear benefit to consumers, to the increasing number of tourists coming to Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland, and of course to the industry itself. Indeed, only a year and a half ago, even the proposers of the motion wanted it. The Environment Committee unanimously indicated its support for a single tier. It was frustrated at the delays in introducing it. Mr Boylan’s view was that the continued delays in introducing a single-tier system were "ridiculous". His view then was:
“it was about the customer and the consumer”, and he quite rightly made the point that it is not the Belfast Taxis Act but the Taxis Act. However, his direction of travel has seemingly changed. All that I can say is that I am glad that I am not in Mr Boylan’s taxi, because, with all those roundabouts and U-turns, it would cost me a fortune.
The concern of those who oppose the single tier is seemingly the possible impact on jobs within Belfast public hire. On that matter, I agree with Arlene Foster, the originator of the Bill, who, as Minister, argued that the legislation does not put jobs at risk. In fact, it will increase the demand for legal taxis, because the industry as a whole will be improved, will be more attractive and will be better regulated. More effective action will also be able to be taken against illegal taxis, using the new powers —
The Minister is very good with quotations, but, during the passing of the Taxis Bill, it was brought before the Committee and acknowledged by departmental officials that it may not be something that would necessarily have to apply to all of Northern Ireland and that Belfast would have to be looked at. That is a matter of public record and formed part of the evidence that was given to the Committee at the time. I presume that the Minister will be happy to acknowledge that as well. The Act has not been universally accepted as applying throughout Northern Ireland or automatically.
I thank the Member for the intervention.
More effective action would be able to be taken against illegal taxis by using the new powers, which the regulations will enable, to seize illegal taxis. Without the regulations, those powers will continue to lie redundant and unused.
I have listened to all views. Since taking office, I have met many representatives across the sector and have considered many points that have been made in favour of and against implementing the remaining provisions of the Taxis Act. Specifically, I have met representatives of Belfast public hire taxis and have listened to and considered their very genuine concerns. However, I have not been persuaded by the arguments that have been put forward, and, in any case, I must balance those with the reasonable demands that have been sought by consumer and disability groups to improve regulation for a safe, fair and fit-for-purpose taxi industry, which, I reiterate, was the major driver for the introduction of the Taxis Act that was supported without division by the House.
Members will also wish to note that the regulations continue the provision and protection for Belfast public hire taxis that only wheelchair-accessible taxis can work from ranks within Belfast. That means that all Belfast public hire taxis will continue to be able to work from ranks and the current saloon-style private hire taxis will not.
My Department has also indicated that the current Belfast public hire fleet will have grandfather rights for five years on the new wheelchair accessible specification. That means that they will not have to comply until 2020, unlike new entrants to the market who will have to comply this year, on the basis that the regulations remain in place.
So, to say that the impact on Belfast public hire has not been considered or will be fatal is simply not the case. I am convinced that any sector of the industry that provides a good and price-competitive service will be able to thrive in the improved regulatory regime that the Taxis Act provides for. Why would it not?
The demand for the services of all taxi services, including Belfast public hire taxis, should be determined by the service that they provide and the price at which it is provided. I cannot justify a licensing regime that serves to protect a particular part of the industry to the clear detriment of consumers.
Consider the scene: a taxi driver with a taxi driver’s licence in a taxi with a taxi vehicle licence, who is legally working for an operator with an operator’s licence, is driving along one of Belfast’s busy streets at closing time on a Saturday night.
The driver sees a young man or woman or a couple who want a taxi home after being out for a few drinks. They want to use the empty taxi that they can see in front of them, and the fully licensed and compliant taxi driver wants the fare. What possible role has the Department of the Environment in denying such a commercial transaction and denying the consumer their choice? The presence of the archaic by-laws, written long before modern dispatch systems were conceived, is not a good enough excuse, nor is the fear of change. There is, in fact, no reason at all.
Seemingly, the Members opposing single-tier do not want to extend to people in Belfast the flexibility on offer to people in Bangor, Armagh, Dungannon, Derry and elsewhere. Those Members want to ensure that where there is the greatest demand for taxis anywhere in the North — Belfast — such a choice is not permitted. Maybe it is no coincidence that not one of the Members who spoke in favour of the motion was elected by the people of Belfast. I know that they are not representing their best interests today.
I listened carefully to all the Members who spoke during the debate, and I thank everyone for their contribution. I will make a few comments on some of the points raised.
Mrs Cameron moved the motion and outlined the Committee's consideration of and deliberations over the regulations. She suggested that we look at a compromise deal, whereby single-tier or dual-tier could work at certain times. That, in my opinion, would compound the confusion that we are trying to clear up.
Mr Eastwood opposed the motion and highlighted the fact that, in the main, taxi operators and drivers wanted to see the legislation and the regulations finally coming in. The aim is to simplify the current system, and that would be beneficial to tourists and locals alike. He referred to the ridiculous situation at George Best airport, where many people's first experience of Belfast is a confusing one.
Mrs Overend referred to the delay that had been granted to give taxi operators time to prepare for the change. To their credit, Belfast public hire have used that time to lobby, and they have lobbied very effectively, causing the DUP and Sinn Féin and now also the UUP to change their position. She referred to the need for certainty in the industry, and that is something that all those involved in taxiing and the wider public need. Having spent five minutes rubbishing the motion and ridiculing those who proposed it, Mrs Overend veered unexpectedly into bus lanes. DRD has primary responsibility for bus lanes, and I understand that it was waiting to see what the new licensing regime would look like before taking a final view on which taxis, if any, are allowed to travel in bus lanes. From a DOE perspective and an SDLP perspective, I hope that it retains the current position of permitting only wheelchair-accessible taxis in bus lanes.
Anna Lo said that, in her time chairing the Environment Committee, she had not heard any compelling argument against the introduction of single-tier. She spoke of competition being good for consumers and felt that those supporting today's motion are preserving the monopoly of Belfast's public hire taxis to ply for trade in the city centre.
Peter Weir spoke of finding a solution. I am certainly keen to do that and will work with everyone to do so. However, I am genuinely not sure what compromise might be acceptable to the drivers who have persuaded his change of heart on the issue. He rightly identified this as a Belfast problem. He spoke of the fear of creating a duopoly, and the evidence certainly exists to show that two big organisations becoming overdominant is bad news for everyone — except for those two parties.
Mr Maginness —
Thanks for that, Barry.
Mr Maginness likened public hire to his past career as a barrister. I know that they charge extra for taking cases. Mr Lyttle spoke of the very real commercial concerns that have been caused by the delay. He talked about the difficulty that exists, particularly around large events, and helpfully cleared up the concerns of cycling groups and cyclists, although I know that a few of them would happily have the buses removed from the bus lanes as well.
I will summarise my position. The case has been made by all sides for almost 10 years. It should be for consumers to decide which services they want to use, taking account of quality and price. There is no reason at all why Belfast public hire should not flourish in such an environment. The motion jeopardises a fundamental tenet of the Taxis Act, reduces choice for consumers in Belfast and puts at risk the aims and objectives of the Act. I sincerely hope that Members will choose to support the case for modernisation and vote against the motion. It is high time that we moved to implement the remaining elements of the Taxis Act as the House intended in 2008. The public in the North need the change, as does the taxi industry.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I start by congratulating you on your new role. I wish you well in it. With your indulgence, I will speak first on behalf of the Committee and will then make a few remarks as an MLA.
I reiterate why the Committee agreed to table the motions on statutory rules 2014/302 and 2014/303: Members do not want to see the public hire sector disadvantaged by the high level of increased competition in lucrative city centre locations that will result from the introduction of single-tier taxi licensing. It will mean that that sector of the industry will become less able to cope with the additional financial commitments for new roof signage, taximeters and printers and training for the new driver tests that are included in the statutory rules. All of that could result in the loss of jobs or livelihoods in the Belfast public hire sector, which provides a 24-hour service, seven days a week, not just on busy late nights at weekends. The Committee urged the Minister to look carefully at the proposed legislation to see how the sector could be facilitated. However, since he chose not to help Belfast public hire, we, unfortunately, have had to oppose the rules.
I thank all the Members for their contributions and will comment on some of the things that were said. It was interesting to listen to Mr Eastwood. On the one hand, he said that we were introducing a single-tier system that would facilitate more taxis in Belfast, but, on the other hand, he said that people could not get taxis.
I will in a minute.
I brought up that point because single-tier is in effect happening in Belfast at the minute. Why is it happening? It has been happening for a number of years because of the lack of enforcement — simple as. I will get round to the Minister's comments in a minute, and I will let in Mr Eastwood in a minute, but I repeat that people have to realise that single-tier has been operating in Belfast because of the lack of enforcement over the past number of years.
So, we cannot say that we introduce the single-tier system, and more taxis will come in, when we already know what is happening in Belfast. I will let Mr Eastwood in.
Thanks. The Member points out that single tier might lead to more taxis. I do not know whether that is true, but the point that I made about you not being able to get a taxi is not based on there not being enough taxis. It is because not enough of them can stop and pick people up. The problem is empty taxis driving past people, not that there are not enough taxis.
I will clarify my point. You are correct, but what I am saying is that, in Belfast, there are enough taxis, and that is the way that they are operating at the minute. That is why I said that a single-tier system is operating — it is because of the lack of enforcement. That is the point that I am trying to make. The issue of enforcement has been going on for a period of time, and the Minister is well aware of that, because a series of questions have been put to him about actions that have been going on. So, in essence, that is what has been happening in Belfast. I just wanted to pick up on that point by Mr Eastwood.
I did not know what way Mrs Overend was going at the start of her contribution. She picked on everybody about what they had said in the past. A number of years ago, we as a Committee agreed to a single-tier system. There is no doubt about that. We thought that we had done a good piece of work, and we listened to a lot of presentations and everything else on it. As part of that legislation, we built in a two-year review to see exactly how the legislation would operate on the ground. Because it has taken nearly seven years to introduce the first piece of legislation — I am not picking on anybody in that respect — we have seen exactly how it is operating. People have to understand that.
Anna Lo talked about competition. If we allow this to go ahead and, by not praying, do not force this motion through, what will happen if we allow a system where a number of cars go into the city? I will explain how I think that we can get around this in Belfast. If a number of companies are allowed to buy into the system and to start operating in the city centre, what will that create? For some people, it may create more choice, but you cannot allow numbers and numbers of taxis, which would happen under single tier. In the two the licence systems, A and B, where the taxi ranks are protected, how many cars can operate at ranks, in reality? So, let us be realistic. The Minister said that nobody has come up with a real effort for a solution that would try to deal with this. We have had some suggestions of how it might happen.
I want to pick up on some other points made by Members before I go on to some other points. Peter Weir is right, to be fair, to say that we started to talk over this process, I think, 18 months ago. Some Members said that we agreed to single tier in 2013 and not to introduce until 2014. If I remember correctly, we agreed to single tier on the basis that we would try to find a solution for Belfast. I could be wrong; Mr Weir was part of the Committee as well. I am nearly sure that we agreed the single tier on that principle. Whilst he supports the motion, he is saying that the rules are not currently fit for purpose. I do actually think that there is a lot of good stuff. I do agree with him; there is some good stuff within the rules that we could work on.
I appreciate and support Alban Maginness saying that the public hire taxis have given a good service down through the years, but I would be minded — and I am sure he would be too — to support the public hire taxis to get their act together as part of the new regime if we brought forward some suggestions on how to deal with it. I think he would support that. They have, and sometimes we forget that and sometimes we do not want to recognise the contribution that public hire has made.
Mr Lyttle was asking what we have brought forward. All I can say is where we see it going wrong. Mr Weir has already talked about a duopoly. How would there be work for everybody in the city if you decided to leave it open? Different people have talked about tourists and not being able to hail and this, that and the other. Other than the groups mentioned by the Minister and by Colum Eastwood, I do not know where we have done that public trawl to see exactly what the people have to say — a proper exercise. I know that different taxi firms have carried out lobbying on their own, but I do not know whether the Department has done that exercise or not. It is something that I would like to hear or see coming forward to see what people have said on that.
I just want to pick up on a few points as an MLA and member of the Committee. Eighteen months ago we asked for the Minister to go away with some suggestions to see if we could address the issue and maybe bring forward a two-tier system in Belfast, because, clearly, with between 500 and 700 black taxis, it needs to be looked at and there needs to be a solution for it. Most of the people here support a single-tier system allowing a monopoly of one group to come in and adhere to one set of rules against another group of people. Anna Lo touched on it. Why should we let that monopoly do something for this monopoly? So we are going to create another monopoly to take over: is that the case? That is what could happen if people were lifting all over the city.
I want to suggest to the Minister some things that we could look at. We talk about an operator licence. If we are serious about looking at operator licensing, we could bring forward a licence system that would differentiate between what the public hire and private hire could do. The facility is there in the Bill, to my knowledge. I think there is a facility for a two-tier system and a facility to look at the operator licence. We mentioned exclusion zones. I think Alban Maginness thought that they could not work, but, to my knowledge, the whole issue is over a five-mile radius in Belfast. We suggested that we could look at the radius and see who would operate within that radius. I think that is something that we could still look at if the Minister is minded to do so.
I am nearly sure that there was a facility in the Bill, or that we looked at taxi marshals to move people on or operate around ranks where you felt that you had to move traffic or footfall at any point in time. People mentioned additional taxi ranks. I think the Minister is right on that. The Minister has no responsibility for that. That is the responsibility of DRD, so, unless he works with another Department to provide additional taxi ranks for Belfast public hire, I do not think it is within his remit.
The other thing that most people talked about — I am getting back to the issue that Colum Eastwood talked about — was taxis not being available. Nobody said that we would not look at the idea of allocating an additional number of public taxis. If people are saying to us that Belfast public hire cannot service the footfall that is there at the minute, in particular at the weekends, why can you not look at an additional number of taxis?
So, there are some suggestions that the Minister could maybe look at.
I have to say this about Belfast public hire: we need to look at a dress code and some of the other issues that came to Committee, such as the standard of vehicle. We would be minded to do that as part of this whole shake-up
In closing, and thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Committee does not believe that these two statutory rules represent the best way forward. Accordingly, it asks the Assembly to agree that they be annulled. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I remind Members that I will put the Question separately on each of the motions listed on the Order Paper.
Question put. The Assembly divided:
Mr Anderson, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms P Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Devenney, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr M McGuinness, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Boylan, Mr G Robinson
Mr Agnew, Mr Allister, Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mr Byrne, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dallat, Mr Dickson, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Mr A Maginness, Mr Ramsey
Tellers for the Noes: Mr A Maginness, Mr McGlone
Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:
That the Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/302) be annulled.