I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the falling number of taxi drivers in the industry and the impact this will have on post-COVID-19 economic recovery; recognises the impact that the delay in reviewing fare structures has had in exacerbating this decline; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to implement measures to address the fall in driver numbers, to expedite the review of fare structures, to work with her Executive colleagues to identify a suite of measures that can be initiated to make the sector more attractive to new entrants, and to review her decision not to issue sector-specific support to operators.
I beg to move the following amendment
Leave out all after the first "fare structures" and insert: "and the complexity of taxi driver testing have had in exacerbating this decline; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to implement measures to address the fall in driver numbers, to expedite the review of fare structures and to work with her Executive colleagues to identify a suite of measures that can be initiated to make the sector more attractive to new entrants, including a review of sector-specific support to operators."
By convention, where the sponsor of a motion seeks to amend their own motion, they are invited to address both the motion and the amendment within the time allocated to them. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I call the Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure, Mr Jonathan Buckley, to open the debate on the motion and the amendment.
I commend the motion and the amendment to the House. I stand as Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure to speak on this issue. The Committee has long been a strong advocate for the taxi industry, for taxi operators and taxi drivers. The Department for Infrastructure has responsibility for the regulation of the taxi industry. To that end, the Committee has had close contact with its various representatives and has taken every opportunity to listen to their concerns and to advocate on their behalf.
During the pandemic, the Committee has doggedly promoted the issues faced by the taxi industry with the Minister for Infrastructure, her officials and her colleagues in the Executive. The Committee for Infrastructure has used every opportunity to champion the need for financial support for the taxi industry and to ensure that it is adequate and fair in its accessibility.
For the past year, the Committee has received briefings from the Minister and her officials and sought to find solutions to the problems faced by the industry during the pandemic and endeavoured to hold the Minister to account. Despite our best efforts, the pandemic has taken a toll on the taxi industry, and it faces a number of challenges in coming out of lockdown.
At its meeting on 23 June, representatives of taxi operators appeared before the Committee to bring to its attention the issues facing the industry and its proposals on what the Executive can do to help.
Due to the pandemic, taxi drivers stopped working. The reasons for that are obvious. During lockdown, there was very little available work, and drivers were trying to avoid infection for the sake of their own health and that of their families. As there was very little work, many drivers were forced to cancel their expensive insurance as they were unable to earn enough pay for it. Some even returned their cars, unable to maintain them.
Now that lockdown is easing and the world is opening up, taxi drivers are once again needed not only for the benefit of our hospitality sector and wider economic recovery but for the health and social care sector to ferry individuals back and forward to appointments. However, at our meeting last week, taxi operators wanted to highlight with the Committee their concern that taxi drivers are simply not returning to work.
The operators said that there were a number of reasons for that. Some drivers have left the industry, and some have yet to make up their mind about whether they will return. Sector representatives quoted figures that showed that driver numbers have dropped by approximately 1,000 each year, from 16,000 in 2013 to around 8,000 now. They believe that there has been a further 30% decline because of the pandemic.
The operators told the Committee that they estimate that they are trying to deliver services to Northern Ireland with around 5,000 active drivers. One said:
"In any average week, between 1,250 and 1,300 of them were working ... Post-pandemic, we have an active fleet each week of between 850 and 900 drivers."
Another operator said that 425 of his 800 drivers were back at work. He said that he knew of 100 who would not be back and another 150 who were unsure.
The operators' request is for a stimulus for their sector to bring more drivers into the industry. They see a need to incentivise drivers to come into the sector and to work the unsociable hours during which taxis are most essential. Drivers are self-employed for a reason. They choose their hours and do not have a fixed work schedule. Operators point out that many have chosen to work Monday to Friday during the day so that they can spend more time with their families and friends in the evenings and at weekends. That, the operators highlight, means that passengers find it increasingly difficult to get a taxi during peak busy hours.
The stimulus that operators seek, which the Committee for Infrastructure's motion endorses and supports, is an urgent review of taxi fare structures and the suspension, for the time being, of the practical and theory tests to become a taxi driver, to coax younger people into the industry and recognise it as a viable job.
The current tariff was calculated on 2011 prices and implemented in 2016 and has not changed since. That is tantamount to an earning cap for the past 10 years, making it a huge disincentive to those considering joining the industry. The fare structure that was introduced was based on a 2011 cost review. It was to be reviewed in 2018 under the Taxis (?Taximeters, Devices and Maximum Fares) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015. Although operators were told that the review was carried out by the Department, no rise was given. The next review was in 2019, and, again, no rise in tariffs. Then, when the pandemic happened, work on this was set aside. Operators are calling for an urgent review that will address the differences between days, evenings and weekends.
Furthermore, operators told the Committee that the current taxi driver licensing requirements are inhibiting entry to the industry, which is exacerbating the decline in driver numbers. Complex, lengthy and difficult licensing arrangements are an impediment to our taxi industry and must be grasped if we are to go forward and support the industry. The Committee for Infrastructure calls on the Minister to urgently implement measures to ensure that the taxi tests are less of a bottleneck in getting drivers into the sector. Prior to 2015, taxi drivers required a normal driving licence, a medical and Access NI clearance. The taxi operators who briefed the Committee advised that the number of applicants to take the taxi theory test last year was 111, which is much lower than the number needed to take the places of drivers who simply will not return. Pre 2015, it took six to 10 weeks to get people into the industry; under the current system, it takes between four and six months and, sometimes, much longer. That situation is simply unsustainable.
I urge the Minister to return to the issue of financial support for this delicately balanced and economically and socially vital sector. The sector's health and viability is your responsibility, Minister. Therefore, the Committee calls on Minister Mallon to take the lead and work with Executive colleagues to provide the support that the sector needs. To date, there has been no financial support from DFI for operators and only general support from other Departments for a small number of operators. The demand for taxis may be high, but, without the drivers to fulfil that demand, there will be greater implications when lockdown restrictions are completely relaxed. The taxi operators issued the Committee with warnings of an increase in drink-driving, of an increase in lifts in illegal and uninsured taxis and of the requirement for a greater police presence in our town centres at closing times to prevent antisocial behaviour due to increased numbers waiting for taxis.
I hope that, in the time that I have had, I have been able to give Members a sense of the abandonment felt by the sector and the challenges facing it, the proposed solutions that the Committee for Infrastructure has put forward and the concerns of the sector. Our economy and our communities simply cannot stand by without taking action.
I will make some brief comments as DUP spokesperson for infrastructure. Minister, the industry is struggling. Drivers and operators under the remit of the Department for Infrastructure feel let down. For our road haulage, bus, coach and taxi operators and drivers, the continued passing of the buck and the blame to other Ministers will no longer cut it. Kind words of thanks and pats on the back will no longer cut it for those key workers, who have kept this wee country moving in difficult times. They have been met with a closed door from the Department for Infrastructure. It is time to step up and deliver for those drivers. I commend the motion and the amendment to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue. I support the motion and the amendment. The Chair has left little for the rest of us to say, but I will try to make some key points. The most important thing is that the motion and the amendment are supported by the entire Committee. It is a Committee motion.
I appreciate what the Chair said about the principal argument, which is that responsibility lies with DFI. We do not mind working with the Minister and other Ministers to deliver. There needs to be a swathe of things done to facilitate the industry. The representatives from the industry who came to us most recently were the operators. That is fair enough, but a number of single taxi drivers also came to us with key points and asks. Driver numbers are down, and there are difficulties with testing that are plain to be seen. There are online portal issues, among others. It is also the case that a lot of people have carried out work throughout the pandemic to support key workers and deliver essential workers to their work. There are people out there who have carried on through all of this. I praise the drivers out there who have kept going.
The Chair mentioned a drop in a number of significant figures over a number of years. He went back to 2013. Commitments were made to look at the fare structure, which is vital. Driver numbers have been declining since 2013 for a number of reasons. The industry has said that it wants there to be a review of the Taxis Act 2008. There are a number of things in it. It has been tried and tested. No matter whether you go to single operators or taxi operators, they talk about the single tier and everything else.
I appreciate what is in the motion. I want to expand on it, however, because, if we are serious, we now have an opportunity to address the whole of the industry and look at taxi provision. The key element of the motion is economic recovery and fighting back after COVID. The industry made a number of points to us. Fare structure, which the Chair outlined, is definitely one. That issue goes back a number of years. It seriously needs to be looked at. The Committee will work across the board on that. We need to see some of the reports and some of the figures that have been produced.
There needs to be a review of the Taxis Act. People have been talking about class A, class B and class C, and there are issues across the board. As part of her response, maybe the Minister will give us some detail on her thinking around that.
Turning to the financial side of things, I know that the Minister previously stated that it would take roughly £6,000 over a two-year period to support some in the industry. Others have intimated that certain schemes were run by different Ministers but some in the industry were not facilitated and could not get moneys. So, there is the £6,000 that was reported over a two-year period, and I believe that she has given out the £1,500 grant twice now — I stand to be corrected on that. There have been so many grants and funding streams and so many applications have been made, and I would like the Minister to comment on that as well. Online access has also been an issue.
I want to work with the Minister and the Committee, but, more importantly, we need to support the industry. When the night-time economy opens up again as, hopefully, it will shortly, we will need the taxi industry. I say that only in the context of having gone through the Taxis Act for a number of years, as have other Members, with a fine toothcomb to try to get the right solution. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it has not. That was a key element and a key argument, but my point is that the taxi industry has a big part to play in the economic recovery, especially in the cities.
I heard somebody use the terminology "town criers". The taxi industry are not the town criers in an urban setting. They are looking for support by way of regulation and financial support to ease their way back in and increase their numbers so that they can deliver the service and play their part in the economic recovery. I support the amendment and the motion.
First, I apologise on behalf of Dolores Kelly, who is our party spokesperson on infrastructure. She has been detained at a Policing Board meeting this morning. She had expected to be back in time for this debate, but the taxis arrived unexpectedly early today
It is always when you do not want them to.
This is a Committee motion, which demonstrates the fact that all of the parties want a better deal for taxi drivers and support measures to strengthen and support our vital taxi sector. I say "vital" because the taxi sector is vital. Taxis play a vital role in so many people's lives, getting them where they need to be, whether that is their work, important health appointments, shopping or leaving kids to school. We need them to do our daily business and, critically, to get us home after a night out.
Taxi drivers are much more than mere transporters. They provide a lifeline to many vulnerable people and a listening ear. However, as has already been pointed out, numbers of drivers are dwindling. That was an issue pre-pandemic, but the risk to drivers' health and that of their families, together with the shutdown of town and city centres, turned a hard job in which to earn a living into a virtually impossible one.
The Minister has provided assistance to drivers over the pandemic, but her powers to do so as Infrastructure Minister were limited, meaning that a scheme could only be delivered if it replaced or refunded costs incurred by drivers for insurance and PPE but not lost income. That was and remains the case. The Minister demonstrated flexibility and that she was listening to the sector by designing the second scheme, in recognition of the fact that so many drivers had been ruled out of the first scheme because they had paused their expensive insurance policies as a financial necessity while there was no money coming in.
The reality now is that the industry is suffering. When the taxi industry suffers and struggles, so does our wider economy. People will be more reluctant to go out to socialise and support city-centre businesses if they are not sure how or even when they will get home. We need to look at the fare structure. We need a fair fare structure to incentivise drivers to work difficult hours that are not just unsocial but, sadly, in many cases, antisocial, with drivers under regular threat of attack.
The Taxis Act 2008 was one of the first pieces if not the first piece of legislation passed by the House. Part of the difficulty that we are still feeling the hangover from today is that that legislation, which was passed in haste, took so long to implement. I was the Minister of the Environment who finally implemented the final pieces. No review of that legislation could take place until the final pieces of the jigsaw were in place. It is essential now that there be a holistic review of the legislation that looks at all the issues, including the fare structure and the evident barriers, which are more difficult to navigate than might have originally been anticipated or intended, to people entering the industry.
We need younger drivers coming in. If you have a look at any taxi stand or do a wee straw poll of the taxis that you get, if you use local taxi companies, you will see the age profile of taxi drivers. They are generally people who are moving on in years and are now moving out, due to issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. What is vital is that we, as parties, all work together. We did that quite well during work on earlier incarnations of the Taxis Act and on the issues, of which there were plenty, that arose throughout that process.
Another ask of the motion is support for taxi operators. Taxi operators absolutely need support. They lost huge amounts of rent. However, to put the responsibility for all of that on the Department for Infrastructure or the Minister for Infrastructure, who does not have the power or the vires to deal with such an issue, is short-sighted and smacks of political opportunism, particularly when coming from a party colleague of the former Minister for the Economy, who worked to exclude operators from some of the schemes that she designed. We need to move away from that politicking and work together to deliver better for our taxis, our taxi industry and our taxi drivers. Give them a fair deal.
Taxis and taxi drivers play a vital role in our economy. They can take people to work. They were important during and at the peak of the pandemic, when there was reduced public transport, because they took essential workers to hospitals, shops, garages etc. Taxis play a vital role for those who may not have their own transport. In normal times, they play an important role for parents, often assisting in delivering children to school. They are also vital in giving people a lift to an NHS appointment, be it with a doctor or a consultant. Frequently, people are not able to use public transport because of an illness. Then, there is the night-time economy, which is yet to fully reopen. There is some activity at present, but we expect it to gradually reopen fully. In rural areas, where there may not be any public transport, a taxi may be your only means of getting to a shop or an appointment. Therefore, they are vital.
It is clear from the evidence that we have been given that the taxi industry is experiencing difficulties. As others have said, taxi drivers are generally an older workforce, and many have been driving for some time. However, some decided to shelter during the pandemic, and many have decided not to return to work. They have perhaps got used to other roles or are working in more nine-to-five jobs. Let us face it: taxi driving can be a very antisocial activity. You are required to work long hours, often late into the night and early morning. As others have said, the number of registered taxi drivers has dropped from 16,000 to about 8,000, but I understand that only about 5,000 are active. Many have not yet returned to work. They are waiting for better times or, perhaps, to see whether they can find another form of employment and not come back to taxi driving. In evidence given to the Committee by Value Cabs, it said that it had 800 drivers at one point but only 425 have come back. The company knows for certain that 100 drivers are not coming back. Some 150 drivers have still not decided what exactly they will do. We have a problem on the horizon, and it is important that we address it.
Tariffs cause difficulties. Taxi driving is not the lucrative job that it once was. The review was originally due after three years, in 2018, but it has not happened, and another three years have passed since then. That must be addressed urgently. We must make sure that the tariffs are reviewed. No one likes to pay more, but what would be worse than that would be being unable to get a taxi.
The review should look at whether there is a need to incentivise those who work longer hours, late into the night and the early morning, so that taxis will be available for the economy where there is that demand. Supply and demand are out of kilter at the moment.
Another issue that was highlighted was that class C taxis are unregulated and can charge whatever they want. Meanwhile, class A and class B taxis are limited to £1·57 per mile. There is clearly an issue with class C taxis. Are they operating fully within their remit? Is there a need to clarify that and protect the public from the higher costs that can result?
Most people recognise that taxi drivers are essential, and it is important that we address the issues. There is some time to do that. Schools will be back in September, so that pressure is coming. The night-time economy is opening, and we need to look at what we can do to improve things.
Tariffs are one thing, but I also ask that we look at issues such as the level of continuing professional development (CPD). Do we really need 35 hours per year of training for a fully qualified taxi driver? There is a cost involved, and there is the cost in loss of work.
I ask the Minister to ensure that there are taxis for those who need them.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been a much greater appreciation across society of key workers. Those on the front line of the NHS, the delivery drivers at our doors and the supermarket staff who kept the shelves filled are some of the people on whom we relied during these unprecedented and difficult times. To that list we must add taxi drivers. Throughout the pandemic, they have been on the front line, bringing health and social care workers to work and helping older people to get to where they needed to go. Much of that was during a time when people were told to avoid public transport if at all possible, and all of it was happening while there was a significant risk to the health of the taxi drivers.
Important as taxi drivers have been during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is equally important that we help them to recover. If we want people to return to our high streets and particularly if we want to support tourism and hospitality as they gradually return to full capacity, we must have a thriving taxi industry.
Through the Alliance Party's 'Green New Deal' document, the party is committed to a green and equitable recovery from COVID-19. The taxi sector is absolutely a part of that. Research from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council shows that people on low incomes and those with a disability are disproportionately more likely to rely on taxis. Furthermore, having a taxi industry that is affordable, safe and reliable means that more people can give up car ownership but still rely on car transport if they need to. There is no contradiction between a green recovery from COVID-19 and supporting the taxi industry. They can be complementary. Taxis are part of sustainable travel solutions today and going forward.
Positive steps forward have occurred since the introduction of the Taxis Act in 2008 and the subordinate legislation introduced in 2016. However, as was made clear by the taxi operators when they appeared before the Infrastructure Committee, problems in the industry have been building. The Driver and Vehicle Agency's (DVA) figures show a consistent decline in the number of active taxi drivers in Northern Ireland. That has been exacerbated by the pandemic. While there is hope that some of the worst of that will be rectified once further restrictions are removed, many of the underlying issues from the past few years will remain. It is important that there be a thorough review of the fare structure. Operators have been able to attract new drivers into the industry with the prospect of a decent wage, but class A and B operators should not be at a disadvantage to those in class C. We support the call for the Minister for Infrastructure to work with her Executive colleagues on a suite of measures to attract new entrants to the industry. I caution that any change regarding any relaxation of driver testing and licensing requirements must go through proper scrutiny and consultation, as it is important that the public continue to have confidence in the industry. Any short-term moves in that regard could quickly backfire if confidence is undermined.
I move now to additional sector-specific support for operators. While we acknowledge that operators have been eligible for various forms of support during the pandemic, that has been comparatively low. There is still a case for considering whether anything more should be done with regard to how the pandemic has impacted on taxi drivers and taxi operators specifically and their ability, particularly that of the smaller operators, to rebound as we emerge from the pandemic.
Too often, during the pandemic, the taxi industry has been used as a political football for multiple sides, and the discussion has centred on a pre-emptive blame game rather than on collaboration and practical solutions. People look to this place to get something done. They do not want to hear blame; they just want something to be achieved. Blame serves nobody, least of all the taxi industry. I support the motion and call for Ministers to come together quickly, in collaboration, to respond to the concerns articulated by the industry.
Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom left the European Union. This is another demonstration and example of the issues relating to labour market mobility and access, alongside those relating to the logistics sector, which the Minister will be aware of. That also needs to be taken into account.
As a new member of the Committee, I am privileged to speak in the debate. The debate is aimed at ensuring that Northern Ireland has a viable taxi sector capable of meeting the needs of the public as well as contract work for the Health and Education Departments. Currently, there is a risk to the viability of the sector. In recent years, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of taxi drivers throughout Northern Ireland. Some reports suggest that a drop of almost 50% has occurred. That has resulted in taxi services becoming more difficult to sustain, whether for the general public or contract work.
Ways have to be found to make the taxi industry capable of meeting every demand placed on it. That can be fully addressed only by a cocktail of measures, from a temporary postponement of theory and driving tests — not the other checks that are required — and a review of the fares. The review of fares is to ensure that the industry provides a financially secure job for people who have families to support. It is important for any industry that participants can make a living from it. Therefore the review of a fare structure that is about 10 years old is essential for the industry to attract new entrants.
There is also concern that the loss of drivers is putting contract work, such as that for Education and Health, in jeopardy. There have to be enough drivers to cover that essential work, as it often involves dealing with vulnerable people who are dependent on taxis for everyday life. Taxis are not just to take people shopping or home after a night out; they are a foundation for the economic success of many sectors of the economy. They are an essential support to a good quality of life for mobility-impaired people, and they help to meet the needs of a rural population. To ensure that we meet all those demands, there must be a proactive drive to recruit taxi drivers as a matter of urgency, with some of the possible measures that I have outlined. Please remember that taxis are essential for travel in many areas, including health and education, as well as economic well-being.
The Member has indicated that he wishes to concentrate on attracting new drivers. Will he accept that it is important to ensure that we retain the qualified drivers that we have? They are the easiest drivers to get back into their vehicles and provide that service to the public.
The Member has made a very good point. I fully endorse what he said.
Finally, I ask that the Minister and her Executive colleagues review the decision not to award financial support to operators due to COVID-19. The taxi industry has seen a drop in driver numbers, partly because the pandemic has made it not possible for drivers to earn a living. While the very limited support given to the taxi industry was welcome, it was nowhere near sufficient to prevent the exodus of drivers. With live music, hopefully, resuming shortly, the need for taxis will increase, and drivers will be needed for contract work. A package of measures for the taxi industry from the Executive in city, urban and rural areas is a must for the Northern Ireland economy and is the best chance for a speedy recovery. It will enable people to support business as normality begins to return.
Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. To fully comprehend the falling numbers of taxi drivers in the industry, as the motion notes, it is important to mention what the industry has gone through over the last year. As we went into lockdown, and as the Executive advised people to stay at home, the demand for taxis was almost upended overnight. Over the following months, drivers felt that they witnessed a ministerial ping-pong between the Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister for the Economy over a response and who was responsible for providing financial support. All the while, our taxi drivers, who are hard-working individuals, struggled to pay their bills, put food on the table and support their families. It is no surprise that, as the motion notes, taxi drivers began to leave the industry. As far as I know, not one operator in Derry received a single penny from the COVID restrictions business support scheme from the Department for the Economy.
On 1 April last year, in an open letter to taxi drivers, the Minister said that she would support taxi drivers and continue to press for more assistance. It took, however, five months to request powers to introduce the financial scheme for the industry: five months to ask for something that could have been done on day one. It took a very public campaign from drivers and the industry. Yet, still, when details of the scheme came to light, we discovered that any taxi driver who had paused or cancelled their taxi insurance, maybe because they were struggling even to live on the breadline, was not eligible for the first financial scheme. The second scheme deducted the time during which they could not afford insurance from the £3,000 grant.
It took almost six months for a financial scheme that provided financial support for drivers who had paused their insurance to take effect. In total, that was a year after drivers and operators were told that they would get financial support. Is it any wonder that drivers are leaving the taxi industry in their droves? The operators need a sector-specific scheme. Many felt completely abandoned by the Department for Infrastructure, which gave them far too little, far too late. Indeed, it is estimated that there has been a 30% decrease in the number of working taxi drivers because of the pandemic. Clearly, the taxi industry is a vital industry that is in crisis. We need urgent and decisive action so that more drivers will join the industry, and there must be incentives for drivers to return to it.
Access to taxis is not just about ensuring that people have a safe way to get home after a night out in Derry, although that is a large part of it. It is also about the carer whose car has broken down and who has to care for five different people that day. It is about the elderly person waiting for a taxi to their local community centre to see someone in person, possibly the first person that week. It is about the schoolchild who has missed the bus and whose parents are unable to drive. If the taxi sector no longer has drivers available to meet demand, there will be a massive implication for the rest of the economy and for our communities and constituencies as people struggle to get from A to B.
As is noted in the motion, we need to make the industry "more attractive to new entrants". That also means making it easier to become a taxi driver, at least in the post-pandemic environment. Furthermore, we need to ensure that taxi drivers get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Consistently low fares have meant consistently low wages and long hours for drivers, and hence a review of fare structures —.
I thank the Member for giving way, and I agree with much of what she has said. Does the Member recognise that, in our shared constituency, fares are very low compared with those in other parts of the North, let alone with those on the Continent? Does she concur that those fares are set not by the Department per se but by the operators?
Fares across the city of Derry are consistently low. Many drivers who work very long hours do not feel that they are getting a fair wage. That is why a review of fare structures is needed, and that is what I am calling for.
It is no surprise that more and more drivers are leaving taxiing to get better wages working with, for example, local delivery services. Sensible, practical, bespoke support requires ministerial willpower to help drivers and operators. That is what the industry needs and deserves, and it is what we, as Committee members, are calling for. Sinn Féin supports the motion and the amendment.
I had reason to take a taxi from my home out to Moira on Saturday night. I got a text message telling me what colour the car was, its registration and what time it would be there. I took the taxi out and booked one to take me home at midnight, for which I got a similar message.
When I spoke to the taxi driver on the way back, he informed me that he does not have a work pattern or a 40-hour week to do. He can work whenever he wants to. He can come in and go out, 24/7. He can come in and go out at the busy times. I asked him, "How does that work at night-time?", and he said that it is up to each individual driver. He is with a large taxi company from Belfast that has now set up in Lisburn. Technology is therefore changing the way in which taxis drivers operate and the way in which they can switch on and off. It made me think about how, when I had the bar in Belfast, I had to have a relationship with all the taxi drivers. My office makes a joke that, every time that I mention the ring of steel that was around the city, I have to put money in a box. People coming out of bars late at night used to have to walk to one of the exit points of Belfast to try to get a taxi. Our taxi drivers kept the city going, and we know the difficulties that they experienced during the worst times of the Troubles. As an MLA, I know what they have done, the part that they have played in Northern Ireland, and the fun and the craic that tourists told me that they had with them.
I am pleased to be here speaking on behalf of the SDLP. There are problems, but our Minister has stepped up to the plate to help the taxi industry throughout the pandemic. While others ducked and dived, the SDLP Minister stepped up to provide not only regulatory support to the taxi industry but financial support of up to £3,000 for each driver. Many in my constituency of Lagan Valley have been so grateful for her Department's work. As we look to recovery, the industry will need our support, particularly to bring in new drivers to support the local economy. Those matters are on the Minister's radar, and she will ensure that the Department works to support the industry through this period of recovery. It will be helpful if the Minister can outline the next steps and options that she is exploring to support the industry's recovery from COVID-19 and to support our town and city centres as we hopefully continue to work our way out of crisis and into recovery from the pandemic.
I apologise to those Members for whose contributions I was not in the Chamber. I have been listening to the debate from my office and have been back and forth.
There is general acceptance in the Chamber that our taxi industry and taxi drivers require support. There may be disagreement on where that support comes from and how it is delivered, but that is the nature of politics. The taxi industry and the drivers will want to know only when they will get the support.
If I may, I offer the Minister some advice on the next steps. I am a wee bit like the previous Member to speak, who hankers back to the ring of steel: sometimes I hanker back to when I was the Minister — once too often sometimes, perhaps. Sometimes, as Minister, your focus and that of your Department is on what you cannot do rather than on what you can do. The approach required for taxi drivers is this: what can the Department do and what can be done in conjunction with other Departments to support those drivers? As a number of people said, COVID has brought a reality check to many of us or, at least, to society. We took many roles and jobs in our society for granted, whether they were shop workers, taxi drivers or even, in some instances, healthcare workers. We now realise that our society cannot operate without many of our service industries, and taxis are one of those.
When I meet Translink and others to talk about funding opportunities for services, they tell me that, if they do not get more funding, they will cut rural bus services. I look at them and say, "That will be difficult for you, because there are very few already". Transport in rural communities is provided by taxis. If you do not have access to a car and the chances of you getting a bus are limited, you rely on a taxi. Taxis are a vital support for rural communities and those who are vulnerable or isolated. Taxis are not only about coming to pick you up to take you to where you are going. Often, they provide an important link for the elderly, the isolated and the lonely through the conversation that takes place on the taxi run, such as, "How are you keeping? Is everything OK? Do you need anything? Are you supposed to be at the doctor's?". Taxi drivers complete many tasks. Moreover, the taxi industry brings in staff who are finding it difficult to find work elsewhere, and, as has also been said, the unsociable hours suit some workers. However, I urge that, even with the introduction of technology, basic workers' rights should be protected. We do not want the gig economy to create a scenario where taxi drivers have fewer rights than they have now.
The case has been made for financial support. The industry and the drivers need financial support. I urge the Minister to do everything in her power to bring that forward. I recognise the Committee's work, some of which I have followed. The Committee, including my colleagues, lobbied intensively on taxi drivers' behalf. The case is made; now, taxi drivers need to see it delivered.
I also note the comments on training, how often qualified drivers require training and how drivers access the taxi industry. Of course, there has to be safety for drivers, passengers and other road users. When you look at the timescales involved, however, a review is required. A review of fares is also required. As everyone who runs a private, family car knows, costs are always increasing. The costs, such as insurance, that are associated with running a taxi have increased.
I congratulate the Committee on its motion. Hopefully, the motion will be agreed today, and, as a result, we will see delivery for our taxi drivers.
I support the motion and the amendment, and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue.
The taxi sector provides key services to people across Northern Ireland, as others have said. It is especially flexible in meeting the needs of many individuals in different places and at all hours of the day and night.
As Members have said, that includes accessing hospital appointments, shopping, school transport and many other activities.
As we reopen our economy, we see the need for taxis more than ever, particularly for our tourism and hospitality sectors. Taxis open up parts of Northern Ireland that are not accessible in any other way to tourists, for example. They also allow bars and restaurants to serve many more customers later and people to know that they can get home safely. However, as shortages have become clear, there are risks that constraints to the taxi sector could limit the reopening and recovery of the hard-hit tourism and hospitality sector. We have seen changes to hospitality rules on licensing, which will be a further challenge for taxi operators. If people cannot go out with the confidence that they can get home safely, they may simply stay at home. It is vital that we do what we can to help to secure that sector and protect those services and the jobs that it provides.
Prior to the pandemic, the taxi industry was already facing considerable headwinds, including falling numbers of drivers and an ageing workforce. During the first and subsequent lockdowns, we saw the complete collapse of travel, which has started to recover but which is not yet at pre-lockdown levels. That meant low-earning potential and little reason for drivers to go out, spend money on fuel and, of course, put themselves at risk of COVID-19 infection. Unsurprisingly, many drivers left the sector or retired, leaving us with significantly fewer drivers.
That was, sadly, not helped by the lack of timely support from the Government. Unfortunately, support during the COVID-19 pandemic has been patchy. The taxi sector has fallen between the Department for the Economy and the Department for Infrastructure. While those two Departments disagreed with each other for months, time was lost to support the sector. Then, the Department for Infrastructure had to basically find a way to pay out funds, which it does not regularly do. Rather than the Department for the Economy, it was the Executive Office that, inexplicably, administered support schemes for travel agents. Similarly, it is clear to me that the Department for the Economy should have taken action to assist the taxi sector. I acknowledge, of course, that some non-specific assistance was provided to depots through the coronavirus restrictions business support scheme.
We need a comprehensive package of support to rebuild the industry, with the full engagement of the Economy and Infrastructure Ministers. The Department for the Economy needs to stop disowning whole sectors and to recognise that we have one integrated economy. As I outlined, there are real risks to our tourism and hospitality recovery, as well as a social impact, of losing taxi services. On the structural issues faced by the industry, it is clear that a package of support and incentives needs to be looked at to stabilise and rebuild the sector. Drivers are leaving the sector and not being replaced. It is vital that the Department for Infrastructure looks at what needs to be done to tackle that now, before it further deteriorates.
The sector has also highlighted the regulation of taxis as a problem. I am well aware of the issues of taxi regulation, as I have worked on the issue, and the odd regulation of the wedding car industry that makes it a challenge to even operate that service. I know that the Minister is aware of that, and I have been in contact with her office on the issue on many occasions. Today, I would appreciate if the Minister would indicate what progress has been made on exempting wedding cars from the Taxis Act 2008 and the onerous and, in my opinion, unnecessary bureaucratic burden that it places on them. Let us be sensible: wedding cars are not taxis, not least because many drivers do not do that as their job. Legislation in Northern Ireland is a mess of red tape, and it is far behind the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, I recently read on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) website about how easy it is for a family member or guest to hire a car for a wedding and drive it themselves on their regular licence. That simply cannot be done in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Member for giving way. It is a vital point. I, too, have been lobbied heavily about the inequalities faced by those who run wedding car businesses. Does the Member agree that red tape and bureaucracy are not only stifling their businesses but preventing part-time work? Many people who have retired from their day-to-day jobs look to that industry for part-time income to support their families.
Thank you. Yes, Mr Buckley, I wholeheartedly agree with you. There is a whole variety of reasons that people do that job, particularly as wedding car drivers. Some of them do it just because they love driving classic vehicles, others because it provides extra income or is their main income and, indeed, others because it is their business to supply the cars and drivers.
The DVLA advises that the quickest way to view or share driving licence information when hiring a car is to use its view and share driving licence service, but that service is not available in Northern Ireland. As the motion states, a review is needed, particularly of tariffs, which I understand were essentially set in 2011.
It is clear that we need to act now to stabilise and rebuild that broad sector, from taxis to wedding cars. The Infrastructure and Economy Ministers need to get together to sort it out and provide specific support. Long-term planning is also needed to encourage new drivers into the sector; that is important. I look forward to the Minister's response to those matters.
The plight of taxi drivers during the pandemic was sorely underestimated. Frankly, the way in which they were treated as far as receiving financial assistance is concerned was unacceptable for too long, and it was due only to their determination and protest that they were able to access help eventually. The decline in drivers is less of a concern for the economy getting back on its feet and more for the workers who were overlooked. Even now, some — many — are struggling to get into work because of overheads or do not see the job that they held as feasible or possible to maintain.
While I agree that having a transparent and capped fare structure is paramount to driver and customer trust, my party does not think that looking at taxi fares alone will ultimately provide the solution to the precarity of taxi drivers or having fewer drivers in cars, especially when that solution will presumably involve fares being increased. The main problem that needs to be addressed is the massive outgoings and overheads that have to be paid out in depot fees, insurance and other charges. The Assembly would do better to intervene to cap those costs in order to ensure that drivers can take home a fair wage for their work. By focusing on raised fares instead, the root of the issue is left untouched, and large depots will continue to make a killing at the expense of drivers and those who have to use private taxis because they have a disability or are elderly. Those customers face the harshest impacts of fare rises and, in some cases, will be priced out of using taxis entirely.
Ultimately, the solution is to have either a state-run or cooperative worker-run taxi fleet that pays drivers a fair wage, guarantees better conditions by capping outgoings and provides a service that is not too costly for some and that is run in an eco-friendly manner, with electric cars and the like. If the Department and the wider Executive take their duty to workers, communities and the environment seriously, that is the kind of plan that they should or would be putting in place, instead of focusing exclusively or narrowly on solutions that do not address the environmental impact of cars, the rising costs to customers and, most importantly, the ridiculous outgoings that workers are expected to fork out to drive for a living. Ultimately, that is the kind of plan that we need to see being implemented through the prism of a just transition that puts workers at the centre.
I apologise to the House: I have to run out to the front steps for a protest. I will not be able to hear the comments of the Minister or the Chair, but I will be able to look back at them. It was important to put those matters on the record even if I cannot hear the responses to them.
I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure for tabling this important debate on the challenges that are faced by the taxi sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant and long-lasting impact on many businesses. At the onset of the pandemic, in recognition of the challenges that were faced by the taxi sector, I acted swiftly to put in place a number of regulatory easements, which amounted to over £1 million of support for the sector. During the pandemic, my resources have also been focused on providing financial assistance to those in the taxi sector who needed it most but could not avail themselves of the other grant schemes or loans: that is, taxi drivers. As Mr Durkan pointed out, through two bespoke taxi driver financial assistance schemes, my Department has provided £15·5 million in support to taxi drivers, having received new powers from the joint First Ministers under the Financial Assistance Act to do so.
We engaged with taxi drivers and the industry, and their analysis indicated that they would require £6,000 of support over two years. I was therefore pleased to have a grant scheme in place that paid out £3,000 over one year to taxi drivers. Of course, as Members have pointed out, as we worked through the schemes, it became evident that a number of taxi drivers had taken breaks in their insurance. That is why we tailored the second scheme to ensure that support could be provided to them and, importantly, also ensure that payments could be made retrospectively so that they were also paid for the duration of the year.
Of course, as we look to the future and turn our focus to post-COVID recovery measures, my Department has stepped up to ensure that the services that it provides are ready to support the businesses that it has responsibility for regulating. That includes the taxi sector. Vehicle testing resumed for priority vehicle groups, including first-time taxis, on 20 July 2020. From 10 March 2021, DVA also resumed testing for taxis that qualified for the regulatory easements that I introduced, which allowed for the automatic renewal of taxi vehicle licences free of charge, including those without a prior test, for a period of 12 months. The DVA also resumed practical driving and theory tests for all categories, including taxi drivers, on 23 April 2021.
I am confident that applications for taxi-driving tests, vehicle tests and taxi-driver and operator licences are being processed in line with normal timescales. I am pleased to confirm to Members that there is no backlog. However, there is still work to do; we are not out of the woods yet. I accept that as we move into recovery from the challenges of COVID-19, unforeseen challenges will emerge. Regardless of our, at times, divided views on dealing with the pandemic, we have one thing in common: we are all in unfamiliar territory. It is about how we step up and deal with the challenges and find solutions to them that will be key to our recovery.
I am willing, as ever, to listen and carefully consider the concerns raised here, and I have asked my officials to continue to engage closely with the sector on issues as they emerge in order to gauge what additional practical steps we can swiftly put in place to assist those in the sector in getting back on the road to earn a living. However, as Minister for road safety, it would be remiss of me to consider or introduce any measures or easements that would compromise road-user standards, the safety of the public, or remove parity between drivers entering the industry and existing drivers who have worked hard to acquire the standards that are legally required of the industry through the current framework that the Assembly approved.
I do, however, recognise the pressures that the taxi sector has been under and remain committed to working with the sector in continuing to monitor the impact of COVID restrictions on it and consider, with my Executive colleagues, how we should respond to support our drivers and all other areas of the economy as we move towards COVID recovery.
I thank Members for drawing attention to the concerns of the sector and for providing me with an opportunity to set out my responsibilities to the sector and the actions that I have taken to support it. I have listened carefully to the views of all Members and will turn to some of the specific points that they have raised.
The decline in the number of taxi drivers has, as Mr Buckley and others pointed out, been happening over a number of years, but there is no doubt that it has been impacted on by the pandemic. In addition to some existing taxi drivers whose taxi licence expired in the period, a number of taxi drivers decided that they would not incur the cost of renewing their taxi-driver licence until the COVID restrictions had been lifted. We want to work with them, and we have reduced processing times for customers through our commercial licensing system. We are also doing what we can to redesign the portal page to make it easier for customers to navigate. The portal is an issue that Mr Boylan raised.
The industry is looking for measures that will support and improve it. That is why I am keen that we continue to work with it — with taxi drivers, operators and the wedding car industry — to support it through this difficult time.
The issue of a fare review was raised. As Mr Durkan said, we need a fair fare structure: I agree. The previous review, as Mr Boylan pointed out, was carried out in 2019. It was not implemented, owing to the suspension of the Assembly, followed by the COVID pandemic, but I am sympathetic to it. Of course, public consultation will be required to gauge the views of the taxi industry and other stakeholders, including the Consumer Council as a statutory consultee. Any changes to the minimum fare would require retesting, recalibration and the resealing of meters. There is work to be done, and that would need to be planned out. I am sympathetic on the issue, and I have asked my officials to look at it.
A number of Members raised points about barriers to entry and the taxi theory test. It is important to point out that DVA has already been proactive in introducing measures to support new entrants to the taxi industry. It has reduced the band score from 19 to 18; aligned the test pass with bus and lorry pass rates; developed practice papers and published them on nidirect; redesigned and improved training materials; English voice-over has been made available; and there is better signposting where candidates performed poorly. I take my responsibility as the Minister for road safety seriously, and, as Mr Muir pointed out, it will be important, if we are looking at changes in this area, that we make sure that they are thoughtfully considered, with all of the implications worked through.
Mr Beggs referred to training and continuing professional development in the industry. He identified a requirement of 35 hours of training over a year. The process actually involves 35 hours of training over five years. An important component of that is disability awareness training, which raises standards in the industry and is valued by the customer base. Again, it is about how we work through some of the issues without compromising road safety or standards.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
On a review of the Taxis Act 2008, it is, of course, good practice to review legislation. The suspension of the Assembly and the pandemic are the reasons why we have not been able to progress that work. Prior to the pandemic, I engaged with the sector to discuss the issue. I assure Members that I have asked officials to look at that work, and I hope to be in a position to provide greater clarity on it once officials have worked through the details for me.
Stewart Dickson and other Members have raised the issue of wedding car operators on a number of occasions. I have had the opportunity to meet him and representatives of the wedding car industry. I will provide him with the update that he requested. He will know that we have received initial advice from the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO) on exempting wedding car operators from the current taxi regime. I have asked for further advice, because careful consideration and analysis are required on a range of issues before I am in a position to make a final decision. I will, of course, keep him updated.
On the lack of financial support for operators, when we engaged with the industry to devise the scheme, we were aware from the evidence submitted by taxi operators that a number of them were able to avail themselves of the £10,000 and £25,000 schemes. Some were also able to avail themselves of the rates and VAT deferrals and furlough. A number were also able to avail themselves of part B of the COVID restrictions business support scheme (CRBSS) from the Department for the Economy. I shared with the Committee correspondence from the Economy Minister that confirmed that. My officials have met taxi operators, and we will continue to meet and work with them and their drivers to ensure that we support them as best we can through this difficult time and beyond.
I thank the Minister for giving way. In light of the motion that we have discussed today, will the Minister commit to working with the Committee? That is important, because, as she knows, while she will have discussions with the taxi industry, if its representatives do not get enough from the Minister or the Department, they will run to us. I suggest that we close that communication gap; otherwise, they will keep coming back to the Committee. That is all that I ask the Minister to commit to today.
I thank the Member for his intervention. It is an important point. One of the regrettable things from the pandemic is the ping-pong between the Economy Minister and me that Martina Anderson mentioned. Early on, there was, regrettably, a ping-pong match between me as Minister and the Committee about establishing where the vires lay. I stated on a number of occasions that I did not have the power to bring forward financial assistance, and we had to go through the rigmarole of trying to get new, additional powers. We should learn from that. I have provided multiple briefings to the Committee, but it is clear that, going forward, the Committee wants to see the right level of support given to the industry, and I am committed to providing that.
In a wee second.
I commit to keeping the Committee updated. I will work with the Committee but also with Executive colleagues, because, as Members rightly pointed out, I am the regulator of the taxi industry, which is critical to our tourism industry and to our night-time economy. As Mr O'Dowd said, it is critical to our rural communities. As Mr Robinson said, it is critical to providing school transport. It is also critical to getting people to their health appointments. It is therefore really important that we work at all levels to try to support the industry as we emerge from the COVID pandemic. I am happy to give way to Ms Anderson.
Thank you, Minister. As Members, we were acutely aware that you did not have the vires, but we were also acutely aware that there was the Financial Assistance Act 2009 to help you get the assistance. We were delighted that, when you put in for it on the Friday, we were notified on the Saturday that you had received it. Financial assistance was available and accessible, and, thankfully, you asked for it and got it the next day.
I thank the Member for her intervention. That is the point that Mr Dickson highlighted. We all have to learn from the process, and, when I reflect on the learning, my view is that much greater benefit would have been derived from taking a more holistic and inclusive approach to providing support to those who are vital to the economy. There was a fracturing, but we are where we are now. I am pleased that I was able to provide financial support for taxi drivers by putting money in their pockets.
The taxi operators themselves raised an important point. Their view was that they would have highly rated giving the indirect intervention to themselves through the individual taxi drivers. We gave that support, and we provided the regulatory easement of £1 million. As I have committed to today to Members, I have asked my officials to look at providing me with options, taking the can-do approach that Mr O'Dowd highlighted, to see what more we can do. Whether that is on the regulatory side, on the fare review side or on the Act itself more widely, I am committed to trying to do more.
I thank Members and the Minister for their responses. We have heard much today about the issues affecting the taxi industry, both drivers and operators, and I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. There will be many listening in who will take much encouragement from Members' words, but, as I said in my opening comments, we must now move beyond words. Action must soon follow.
Collectively, Members spoke about how vital the industry is to our broader economy and to our community, both rural and urban. Members reiterated how the COVID pandemic had worsened the issues affecting the sector. They also highlighted the legacy difficulties that need to be addressed, which are fare structures as a priority and the taxi licensing complexities, albeit there were different views on how far and how quickly we could move on that. It is a welcome start, however, that there is a recognition that there is an issue that must be looked at. Members highlighted the need to encourage younger drivers into the industry to revitalise it in a post-COVID environment and the need to incentivise work in unsocial hours through bespoke policies and financial packages. That would recognise the need that our economy has for taxi drivers to work sometimes very unsocial hours to provide safe and practical solutions for the general public. There was also a desire to see a collaborative approach taken across the Executive, with a clear lead taken by a designated Minister, to ensure that the Committee can scrutinise actions for the industry and, indeed, give some reassurance to the industry and to Members.
It is clear that there is no disagreement about the dire situation facing the taxi industry. Everyone here today recognises the concerns of the individuals and organisations involved and the impact on their lives and those of their families. We have heard that this is an industry that has been in decline for a number of years: since 2013, in fact, when it provided employment to approximately 16,000 drivers. Year on year, however, that figure has dropped, until, by 2020, only around half of that number remained. We have also heard much about the impact of COVID and how it has further driven down numbers so that post-COVID economic recovery in the industry is now being supported by around only 5,000 drivers. That a totally unsustainable situation. That is a shocking figure. It is less than one third of the number in 2013.
We have also heard that drivers are self-employed and thus are responsible for the cost of insurance, vehicles, training and the personal cost of unsociable hours that many work to provide a service to society. That service not only benefits our hospitality sector, reduces drink-driving and contributes to wider economic recovery but assists the health and social care sector and the education sector by ferrying individuals back and forth for various appointments and by taking children to school.
We have heard rehearsed the reasons why, during the pandemic, taxi drivers stopped working because of the drop in demand for their services and to keep themselves and their families safe. That led to many having to cancel their insurance and even return their vehicles as they were unable to maintain payments without the necessary income, which, in turn, impacted on their ability to access some of the packages that were in place.
Now that lockdown is easing and the world is beginning to reopen, taxi drivers and the vital services that they offer are needed more than ever. Yet, we find that many drivers do not wish to return to the industry, and few new drivers are being coaxed into joining it. That is something that we have to grasp because, as we emerge from the pandemic, we undoubtedly face a lack of workers in the industry. It is not only impacting on the taxi industry; I hear concerns from road haulage drivers and other industries that are vital to Northern Ireland and its functioning that we have to be really live to and aware of in the days ahead. The Committee for Infrastructure heard calls from the sector about how it is in need of support to mitigate the decline in driver numbers, and it is for that reason that today's motion was brought to the Chamber. There is clear evidence from the sector to suggest that an intervention or a stimulus is needed to reverse the downward trend and assist in the recovery not just for the benefit of the sector but for the wider economic recovery of Northern Ireland post COVID. The industry has offered solutions on what those interventions could be, and the Committee has lent its support to those in the Chamber today, collectively with one voice.
The call for an urgent review of fares is not unreasonable. The current taxi fare tariff is tantamount to a 10-year earnings freeze. It is a huge disincentive to joining the industry, as is the complexity of taxi driver testing with set test periods, both practical and theory. I thank the Minister for her indication that she recognises the inequalities in that taxi fare system and the need for a fair fare system.
The contributions in the Chamber today have acknowledged those areas of concern and echoed the calls for action. Therefore, we urge the Minister for Infrastructure to recognise those factors and take the action that is required. Measures include an urgent review of the taxi fare tariff and working with her Executive colleagues to see what other measures can be initiated, including a review of sector support for operators. We all recognise the problem and know that support is needed. That is a good place to be, and we must recognise that. Politicians are united in their desire to help the industry, and we must now get to work and ensure that that happens. I commend the motion and the amendment to the House.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes with concern the falling number of taxi drivers in the industry and the impact this will have on post-COVID-19 economic recovery; recognises the impact that the delay in reviewing fare structures and the complexity of taxi driver testing have had in exacerbating this decline; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to implement measures to address the fall in driver numbers, to expedite the review of fare structures and to work with her Executive colleagues to identify a suite of measures that can be initiated to make the sector more attractive to new entrants, including a review of sector-specific support to operators.