4. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change: Update on the Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle (Wales) Bill

– in the Senedd at 3:34 pm on 3 October 2023.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:34, 3 October 2023

(Translated)

Item 4 is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change: update on the taxi and private hire vehicle Bill. I call on the Deputy Minister, Lee Waters. 

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 3:35, 3 October 2023

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. To meet the urgent challenge of climate change, we need to make sustainable forms of transport a more attractive choice for people. So we need to join up bus, rail and active travel to make them the easy choice to get around, and a key connector for people to those services are taxis. Private hire vehicles and taxis are often neglected when we think about our public transport system, but they play an important role in joining the system up. Cabs provide connections for the first and last mile of journeys, and give passengers the flexibility that buses and trains can lack in getting people to where they need to go. And as commercial bus routes have been pared back, taxis are a lifeline in many communities, to connect people on a day-to-day basis. It's also important to recognise that they are disproportionately important to people with mobility difficulties.

In March, we published our White Paper on reforming the licensing regime for taxis and private hire vehicles. We received almost 150 responses from drivers, operators and passengers, and I’m grateful to everyone who responded. On 26 September, we published a summary of responses, and I’d like to set out the next steps to deliver our programme for government commitment to modernise the sector.

Our reform programme is about improving the passenger experience, and providing a stable operating environment to make sure taxis are available for people right across Wales when they need them. Wherever in Wales any one of us steps up to a taxi rank, or uses an app to order a private hire vehicle, we should be able to expect a safe and consistent service. Respondents to our consultation expressed broad support for our proposal to introduce national minimum standards for drivers, vehicles and operators. Many throughout the UK are supportive of national consistency, and there have been calls for other governments to follow our lead.

One of the chief complaints from drivers, especially in south-east and north-east Wales, is the issue of drivers from areas with less onerous standards of training and testing unfairly competing with them for passengers. This so-called cross-bordering doesn’t give passengers a consistent level of safety and customer service, and is bad for drivers and operators too.

Many respondents also felt that discretion for local authorities to set additional local standards should be kept to a minimum. We will continue to work with stakeholders to finalise the national standards. As a result, whenever you use a taxi or a private hire vehicle in Wales, you will be assured that the driver, vehicle and operator have been subject to the same requirements, safety checks and training.

Respondents had mixed views about the implications national standards would have for taxis and private hire vehicles licensed in England and working in Wales. We will not stop legitimate journeys that cross the border between Wales and England. We will seek to introduce safeguards to ensure that drivers do not obtain a licence in England to avoid Wales's national standards. And we will continue to monitor the situation and engage stakeholders on both sides of the border as we develop our proposals.

Respondents asked us to be mindful that raising standards will bring some additional costs to the sector. Drivers and operators are not immune from the cost-of-living crisis and the severe economic headwinds facing all sectors. We are not proposing a gold standard but a balanced approach that will raise the bar on best practice and level the playing field for drivers and operators—and I apologise for the mixed metaphor.

The current variation in standards across Wales means that costs will differ from one local authority to another. What is clear, though, is that the areas where costs will be highest will be those where the benefits will be most felt. These are the areas where the service has been working to lower standards until now.

Respondents wanted clear and simple processes for enforcement of standards. And respondents were generally in favour of enabling local authorities to take enforcement action against vehicles and drivers operating out of area. This was particularly true where there is an immediate risk to public safety.

To further improve safety, we are working with the Centre for Digital Public Services to explore options for better information sharing between local authorities and with passengers. We have also listened to drivers' concerns about their safety, and will review requirements such as the wearing of badges and CCTV.

The phenomenon of so-called multi-apping has now become a feature of the taxi market. Drivers may make themselves available for hire on several taxi-booking phone apps at once and then cancel a trip if a better offer comes along. As well as an irritation, this also poses a risk to passenger safety. There were mixed views about the causes of cancellations and no consensus on the actions that would be effective to prevent them. So, we will continue to keep this matter under review as we develop our proposals, and I would welcome the views of Members. 

Respondents from the trade were concerned about the costs and practicalities of transitioning to zero-emissions vehicles. We remain fully committed to achieving net zero by 2050, and decarbonising cars will be an important part of that. But I recognise that there are challenges, including the cost of buying an electric vehicle, anxiety about vehicle range and the availability of charging infrastructure. Dirprwy Lywydd, Wales cannot move faster than the rest of the UK on these issues, but we expect the taxi and private hire vehicle trade to transition to electric vehicles in line with the rest of the car market.  

So, taken together, I think this is a sensible package of measures that will improve the taxi industry for passengers and drivers, and we will continue to engage with the trade and passengers to ensure our legislation works for the whole of Wales. Diolch.

Photo of Natasha Asghar Natasha Asghar Conservative 3:41, 3 October 2023

I welcome the Deputy Minister's update on the White Paper, as well as his recognition of the need to modernise the sector. It's clear that passenger safety is essential, and I'm glad that there will be enhanced DBS checks and more safeguarding for adults and children who use taxis and private hire vehicles. However, we also need safety precautions for taxi drivers themselves. The Deputy Minister did touch upon CCTV. We've all heard numerous reports about attacks on Wales's taxi drivers. From Anglesey to Cardiff, there have been taxi drivers who have received serious assaults from passengers under the influence of drink or drugs, and in some cases both. Take, for example, the case of Mr Ali from Cardiff, who in 2021 suffered a life-changing head injury because of a vicious attack by a passenger who was drunk and high on cocaine. Thankfully, his attacker was jailed. There are, in fact, more female drivers now in Wales, so it's also vital that we take their safety and security into consideration.

I see the Deputy Minister's vision for this paper is a licensing system 'fit for a modern Wales', and, I quote, that 

'promotes safety for passengers and drivers'.

But I am concerned that the White Paper doesn't go into enough depth and detail about how this is actually going to happen. So, can the Deputy Minister outline what he will do, or at least provide us with some reassurance that he will come forward with more detailed proposals on safety measures for taxi drivers? I'd also like to know what consideration has the Deputy Minister given to the safety of female drivers. Furthermore, the total number of licensed Welsh drivers in 2022 is the lowest in 17 years, so how will the Deputy Minister encourage more drivers into the sector through the White Paper?

Deputy Presiding Officer, I also welcome the White Paper as it will have an emphasis on making the taxi and private hire vehicle fleet zero emission by 2028. I see the consultation document says that one way to accelerate to zero-emission vehicles is to set a deadline for all taxis and PHVs. But what thought has the Deputy Minister given to extra support for taxi and private hire vehicle operators to meet this target and ensure that it's actually affordable, as we all know that eco-friendly cars aren't cheap? Just one local authority in Wales, Newport, has emissions standards in place for taxis and PHVs, so what effort is the Deputy Minister making to ensure that councils are also encouraging zero-emission vehicles in their areas?

I have been helping a constituent in Newport who raised concerns with the current state of wheelchair taxi services in the city. He told me that the lack of pre-bookable wheelchair-accessible taxis is, in fact, causing him significant hindrance and inconvenience. I've also raised this issue directly with the Deputy Minister and Newport City Council, who told me that they have raised these concerns through the White Paper consultation. So, Deputy Minister, please can you explain how the White Paper will help with this problem and problems like these going forward? Eighteen out of 22 local authorities in Wales do not currently have a requirement for disability awareness training for drivers, so please can you tell me how the White Paper will help address this?

Again, I'd also like to outline our support for the principles behind the White Paper. With some tweaks, this certainly can improve the service for both passengers and drivers. Deputy Presiding Officer, I'm sure the Deputy Minister will listen carefully to the consultation responses he's received so that the resulting legislation will be fair, robust and inclusive for all. Thank you.

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 3:44, 3 October 2023

I'd like to thank Natasha Asghar for the broad support for the approach we're taking and for the constructive way in which she has engaged with it. She's asked me a number of questions and I'll do my best in the time to answer them. On the issue of safety for taxi drivers, as I mentioned, we will still keep an open mind on whether or not CCTV should be an expectation of licensing. I'd initially not included it in the White Paper, because I was concerned of the cost for it at a time of economic difficulty, but I must say the response from the sector is that many drivers would welcome CCTV. Of course, there's nothing stopping them from doing it anyway, and, on the particular question about women drivers, that's something individual drivers may want to do. I'm told the average cost is around £350 for a compliant system. There is an issue of the fact that they would then become data controllers under the data regulations, which may be a disincentive for some drivers, but it may well be the market will evolve, and other services may become available for drivers to take that bureaucratic necessity away. So, we're keeping an open mind on that, and I think there's strong encouragement for taxi drivers to install their own CCTV, whether it should be a condition of regulation, I think we're still considering, and I'd welcome the views of Members on that. It's an open question. 

She rightly said as well—the lowest number of drivers in the sector for 17 years. And that's why we hope the overall impact of this package of reform would be to raise standards, to have consistency of standards, to give drivers some security about the operating environment they'd be going into. There are different problems in different parts of Wales. In Cardiff and Newport, the primary concern is around cross-bordering and the ability of drivers to earn a decent living, if taxis licensed to lower standards can come in and cherry-pick fares. In most other parts of Wales, the problem is a lack of drivers, and, certainly, in Llanelli, where I try and get a taxi from time to time, it is very hard to find one. So, I think, we do need to look at this in a slightly different way in different parts of Wales. But I think, overall, the purpose of this reform is to provide greater stability for the sector, which would then create a more attractive environment for drivers to re-enter. 

On the issue of the deadline for electric vehicles, it is our intention to use this legislation to give the Welsh Government powers to set a deadline at some point in the future for bringing in an EV mandate. That is not something we have any intention of triggering, certainly within this Senedd term or in the foreseeable future. As I said in my statement, we expect the market across the UK to mature at a similar time, and I don't think there's any advantage for Wales to go ahead of the rest of the UK in trying to use our mandate and powers to accelerate the Welsh market. We need to make sure we've got sufficient charging infrastructure and that the cars are affordable, and that is an evolving picture. So, we're not minded to use these regulations to speed that up beyond its natural market progress. On the final point about—. Obviously, just as a supplementary to that, you asked what we're doing to encourage electric vehicle take-up—we are trialling, with the Cardiff city region and others, charging points just dedicated for electric taxis in key spots to try and make sure they have priority charging when they need it, for example. 

Turning to disability and the lack of both cars that are suitable for disabled passengers and the take-up of disability awareness training, that is very much something that we are mindful of and working very closely with the sector on in developing this package of reforms. By having a consistent set of standards across Wales, we can make sure that the training is consistently available, and disability awareness training is something we would very much have in mind that should be available to all parts of Wales and should be a condition of having a licence. And, again, similarly, having cars that are fit for purpose is all part of making sure we have a more mature taxi sector with a greater degree of economic certainty that would allow that investment to be made. So, I hope that answers the questions she posed, and I'd be happy to discuss further if there are other questions.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:49, 3 October 2023

(Translated)

Before I go into the detail about the legislation, I think we must acknowledge the challenges that women and vulnerable travellers face with our current transport system, including taxis. It isn’t merely a question of convenience, in terms of taxi transport, but there are important questions in terms of safety and dignity too. All too often we hear reports of harassment and assaults. This is a stain on our society, and we must tackle the problem. And I welcome what is said on this issue.

All too ofte there is a lack of connectivity in our transport system and a lack of accessibility. On the question of access for those with disabilities, it was very much welcomed when, in 2017, it became illegal for a taxi driver to discriminate against wheelchair users. But, since then, 64 per cent of participants in a survey by Disability Wales said that they had experienced problems in trying to use a taxi. Parents reported appalling behaviour by some drivers towards their children with additional needs. So, I would appreciate it if you could tell us, Deputy Minister, how you think that this new legislation will remedy that situation.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:51, 3 October 2023

And you've mentioned about the sustainability of the fleet. It's also key that we ensure that the transition, as has already been said, is both feasible and equitable. So, I'd ask specifically if you could set out any detail on financial mechanisms that are in place to support taxi operators and drivers to transition to those more eco-friendly vehicles, in addition to what's already been said.

When it comes to passenger safety and the training of drivers, I also welcome the news about increased Disclosure and Barring Service checks. I'd ask if there are any other measures that you'd like to highlight that you think might give particularly young women more peace of mind, in future, in getting into taxis. You mentioned in response to Natasha about CCTV and how you're keeping an open mind about that. I think it does merit serious consideration about whether it should be mandatory, because I think that that is one thing—. I certainly know that when I've got into a taxi late at night and I can see that there's a camera, it gives me peace of mind. So, I think that really would merit looking at further.

Minister, you've mentioned about cross-border hiring and how that's a massive issue particularly in Newport and Cardiff—the bigger cities—because there are so many drivers who are licensed elsewhere working in those cities. I think the argument that national standards would make cross-border hiring acceptable—surely, that isn't true, because there's no substitute for local knowledge. If local authorities are still administering licensing, then local knowledge tests must surely be a must, because technology can fail, it does fail and relying only on a sat nav system just isn't acceptable. So, I'm glad to hear that you'll be working to address some of those issues.

And I know that multi-apping, as you've mentioned, as well, is a pressing issue, where self-employed drivers have to be allowed to work for whatever company and however many companies they choose. The major companies, I know, will continue to lobby that drivers working on multiple apps increases the likelihood of cancellations, but if the major companies had better tariff rates and they didn't flood the market with more and more drivers, then maybe drivers wouldn't feel the need to multi-app in the first place. And I know that some councils are looking into restrictions on drivers working with more than one company. If they are allowed to do this, I know that there are concerns that it might prevent new start-ups, or maybe another driver-owned co-operative like the former taxi co-operative, Drive—it would prevent them from entering the market, which is, presumably, what the major companies want to happen. So, I'm glad that you'll be monitoring this. I think that there are lots of different nuances that need to be kept in mind with that.

So, overall, I do agree that this Bill does offer a really important opportunity to address sustainability, women's safety, the need for more integrated transport systems and more accessible transport systems, and I would welcome hearing more detail on some of those points. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 3:54, 3 October 2023

Thank you. Again, thank you for the broad support of the approach and the constructive way that you've engaged with it. I'll try and answer some of those points. So, I think, on the issue of women's safety particularly, the issue of CCTV is something that I'd be very keen to hear further views on. As always with these things, there is a balance, and likewise with the final questions that Delyth Jewell posed about local knowledge and the issue of cross-bordering. We need to consider what the barriers of entry are here for the trade, because, as Natasha Asghar has already mentioned, we have the lowest number of drivers for 17 years. What we found with disability conditions, for example, if you put on hackney carriages a requirement to take disabled passengers, you often end up with people leaving the taxi element and going into private hire vehicles, where you have fewer levers.

This is a delicate regulatory balance and we need to be careful that we don't unwittingly create unintended consequences. I think, fundamentally, we have still a very arcane system of regulation where we make a distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles when, increasingly, members of the public don't understand that distinction, and the distinction is becoming blurred by technology, because, in theory, a taxi is the only vehicle that can be hailed from a rank, and a private hire vehicle has to be booked. But were you to come across a private hire vehicle sitting there that used an app, you could simply stand next to it, use your app, book a ride, Bob's your uncle, you've got a taxi. But, in effect, it's the same thing as a hackney carriage. So, I think technology is changing the boundaries here of what these quite antiquated distinctions mean.

Also, there's the balance between the consumer and the operator. Obviously, consumers want choice, they want lower prices, operators want to be able to make a decent living and to have a professional set of standards in doing it. Obviously, we are wanting to put in these conditions around training, equalities and vehicles. So, this is not a straightforward arena to try and regulate intelligently in, and we're having to bear in mind all of those things.

I was just going to say, on women's safety, the market is already moving ahead here. So, for example, if you use an Uber app, which is only available in some parts of Wales, one of the things I know women passengers in particular value is the fact you know who the driver is in advance. There's accountability. They know who you are, you each give each other a rating, there's a photograph, there are names, and I think this gives a lot of security, not just to women, but other people as well. I think that is a welcome development in the market. Obviously, that doesn't work in the same way for hackney carriages, and it isn't the same for all apps and all different providers. So, again, the question is to what extent do we try and regulate in Wales differently and try and impose this on a market that is in flux. I think these are delicate judgments. 

On the issue of incentives to take up electric vehicles, at the moment my judgment is we have finite resource. We looked at the possibility of a car scrappage scheme for taxi drivers to incentivise them—at the moment, that is not the highest priority for where we can put our resource. I think, as Cardiff Council develops its plans for a clean air zone, a charging area for the city, which is four, five years away, just to reassure colleagues before they get excited—I think the issue of car scrappage schemes is absolutely something that needs to be designed in and particularly for the taxi sector. So, I don't think that's something we want to look at in this current round of reforms, but that is absolutely something we need to be thinking for the next round of reforms.

Just to reassure Delyth Jewell, we are working closely with the disability taskforce transport group on designing our proposals for the legislation, and that is a very constructive and helpful dialogue. Again, I hope I've answered the questions. If I haven't, I'll be happy to take them up separately.

Photo of Jenny Rathbone Jenny Rathbone Labour 3:58, 3 October 2023

Thank you for addressing the cross-border issue, which is quite a major subject of discussion in Cardiff. I've no objection for taxis to be bringing people into Cardiff from other areas and then wanting to use the journey home to be covered by another passenger going in that direction, but Cardiff is over-taxied, and part of the reason it's over-taxied is because there's no doubt that some people are getting licenced in an area where it's easier to get a licence, and then they're coming to work in Cardiff. That's not fair to the Cardiff taxi drivers who may be having to work much longer hours in order to earn a decent living, and that has its own safety issues as well.

I just wondered if you could say a bit more about the work with the Centre for Digital Public Services to provide better information sharing between local authorities, because, presumably, the technology exists to track how much time a vehicle was spending in the area where they're licensed and actually providing a service there, as opposed to the proportion of time they may be fishing in Cardiff waters, because we're all aware that Donald Duck and others have signed the petition against 20 mph default in residential areas, and, similarly, you could have people pretending they lived in an area where there were less onerous licensing conditions who may or may not be a fit and proper person.

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 4:00, 3 October 2023

I'm tempted to say I had that Donald Duck in the back of my cab the other day, but that wouldn't be true. [Laughter.]

So, thank you for those points you raised. So, the issue of cross-bordering I think is a tricky one, and I think there are two primary ways we can deal with this. There are a number of cab drivers who think we should have a cap on the number of taxis who are issued licenses, and that then enables them to earn a good wage, because that gives them economic power, clearly. We balance that against the need for prices to be competitive and for passengers to have a lower price, and certainly the business model of some of these new entry firms, such as Uber and others, has been to lowball the price, and then the driver has to take that pain. So, as I say, it's an emerging picture, and these are quite blunt instruments.

The other option, which I'm more attracted to this stage, is to say, 'Well, let's remove the distinction of a taxi licence issued in Newport, for example, versus a licence issued in Cardiff.' If they have to meet the same standards, then there is no economic incentive for undercutting in a different area, and also, crucially, there's the issue of enforcement. So, if Cardiff local authority can enforce cars, no matter where they've come from, that are in their area, that, I think, allows for a level playing field. At the moment, they can't do that, they can only enforce against Cardiff cabs, which then creates the situation that Jenny Rathbone highlights of Newport cabbies allegedly flooding the Cardiff market on the basis of a cheaper point of entry. So, by equalising the point of entry and equalising the enforcement, I think that is a more equitable way of dealing with the problem that she describes. But there are other views on that, and that is a debate that is still ongoing.

I think the more difficult issue that is emerging is of taxis licensed by authorities in England—I'm aware in particular of Wolverhampton being a centre where taxi firms can be licensed at a lower standard, and who then operate right across the UK, and there are some incidences of that happening in the Valleys in Rhondda Cynon Taf at the moment, and that's something we're becoming aware of and are keen to look into and think through what options we might have to be able to deal with that.

On the issue of the Centre for Digital Public Services, when we were discussing the design of the consultation on the White Paper, one of the proposals was to have a large database where all local authorities could share data, so they could look at registrations, they could look at cancellations and the data collected. I'm very nervous about the creation of large new computer software programmes to create databases, so, rather than jump to an IT solution, I've asked the Centre for Digital Public Services to work with us and the sector to focus on user need, and this is part of the Wales digital strategy, and use the skills of service design to understand what the problem is and to build a solution. That may well be a IT solution; it may not be, it may be something that already exists—that's what's being explored. I think that's a sensible way to approach the problem.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative 4:03, 3 October 2023

Thank you very much for your statement this afternoon, Deputy Minister, and of course, as we know, taxis and private hire vehicles play a significant role in transporting the public from A to B in a timely and sufficient manner. And the transition to electric vehicles would be more welcomed by the industry if the Welsh Government were committed to expanding EV infrastructure, as there are fewer charging points in all of Wales than just two boroughs of London. So, what consideration has the Deputy Minister given to fleet management within taxi companies when transitioning to electric vehicles, as the taxi companies that I’ve spoken to locally in my constituency are anxious about EV, as they have to regularly service vehicles, more so than the average car, and rightly so? But could the Deputy Minister explain how transition can be achieved in a way that isn’t detrimental to the existing fleet they have and the finances used to purchase and maintain such vehicles?

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 4:04, 3 October 2023

Thank you. I think it’s a false comparison between Wales and London, simply on economic grounds. The reason why two boroughs of London have as many EVs as Wales is because they are wealthy and they are able to afford expensive cars, and the market then overserves that geography in providing charging infrastructure, plus they have a better power grid than we have. So, we’re not comparing like with like there. As we’ve said a number of times, the charging infrastructure in Wales is equivalent per head to the charging infrastructure elsewhere in the county. We have fewer electric vehicles. Now, that will change and it will change quickly, as the technology develops, as the price comes down, as the second-hand car market emerges. So, I'm not overly anxious about that. I think that will take care of itself. Obviously, the decision by the UK Government to change the target for the stopping of the sale of petrol and diesel engines doesn't help that take-up, but I notice the market is probably going to ignore that, and a large number of manufacturers have said they're going to stick to the 10-year target regardless.

On the issue of maintenance, I'm not sure he's quite right about that, because my understanding is that electric vehicles need less maintenance than combustion engine cars, because there are so many fewer parts. Apart from brakes and tires, there are very few things to go wrong in an electric car. So, it's generally accepted that the overall lifetime costs of an electric car are lower, but the upfront costs are higher. So, it is usually a good upfront investment, assuming, of course, you can afford and service that upfront investment. But, again, the tools we have to intervene here are limited, and the resource we have is limited. I'm quite keen, in this White Paper, to focus on things where there is a strong consensus for action, bearing in mind that this legislation is not likely to be introduced into the Senedd until the end of this Senedd term, and I think if we can have a consensus-based Bill it's far more likely to pass, rather than fall, as the last one did. The taxi sector needs this legislation, and I think we should look for a minimum viable product rather than trying to go into contested areas, which are going to be more difficult to get through in time.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 4:06, 3 October 2023

I welcome the Government's aim to ensure we have a taxi and private hire vehicle licensing system that improves customer experience and is accessible by all, because I've received reports from constituents who've had really distressing experiences trying to access a taxi, which really points to a dire and urgent need for reform. One constituent from Port Talbot was told that the journey he wanted to make was too short, although he has limited mobility due to a back injury. It's the first and last mile of those journeys you talked about, isn't it, in your statement. He wouldn't have been able to walk the distance back to his home, and the constituent said this wasn't the first time he'd had difficulty in securing a taxi. Another constituent was unable to get into a taxi because the driver refused their guide dog access. From what I've been told, she did try and tell the driver that this was illegal, unless the driver was allergic and therefore an exemption applies, but in the words of the constituent, he didn't care and said, 'Report me, then.' This is unacceptable, isn't it? We've seen in the responses to the consultation that there are numerous concerns around disability discrimination—Leonard Cheshire, for example, stating the need for additional requirements on licensing administrators to ensure effective monitoring and enforcement of national minimum standards. So, how is this new Bill going to ensure this discrimination is tackled once and for all, where other legislation has failed, and how will it enshrine the social model of disability to which the Government is committed? Diolch.

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 4:08, 3 October 2023

Thank you. Those are very fair points and concerns we share. I'm pleased to say that, in the consultation, our proposal for disability equality training was widely supported, so I think that will be a central point of the approach that we bring forward, and the example that you gave about access to guide dogs and being told the journey is too short is a very good case study of why that is needed, both to make sure that all drivers understand the impact and also their obligations, but also then having that similar enforcement regime and similar licensing regime, so, if there are issues like that in any part of Wales, they know there is a recourse to action. So, I think, overall, the purpose of this reform—. If it goes the way we hope it will, it will raise the level of the whole sector. And as I say, what I'm quite keen to see is that we start to see taxis then as a genuine part of the public transport ecosystem. And I think, as we move towards bus franchising and having in TfW a single guiding mind who can plan both rail and bus and active travel in an integrated way, we can also then move to have the taxi system work alongside that, so that the whole system thinks in a planned and intelligent way, rather than the slightly random way it can operate at the moment.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour 4:09, 3 October 2023

Thank you, Minister. I was pleased to hear you reference the fact that private hire vehicles and taxis are particularly relied upon by people with mobility issues. There is a challenge in Cynon Valley, which, from the contributions of other Members, it appears is replicated across much of Wales, of there being a low number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. From correspondence with Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, I know that at the end of last year they changed the maximum age at which a wheelchair-accessible vehicle could be licensed from five years from date of first registration to seven years, bringing them in line with non-accessible taxis, and also increasing the expiry of the licence from 10 years to 12 years. This policy came about from meetings between the authority and Unite the Union, which represents many local taxi drivers, and the policy, of course, helps to keep more of these accessible vehicles on the road for longer. However, I'm told by taxi drivers that the increased purchase costs associated with wheelchair-accessible taxis remain the biggest barrier to ensuring a suitable supply. So, my question is: what work has Welsh Government done to explore whether there is capacity to provide increased financial support for taxi drivers, so that they can purchase these more expensive vehicles, which are suitable then for all members of the community?

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 4:11, 3 October 2023

Thanks to Vikki Howells for highlighting those important points. I think it goes to the heart of the tension of what we're trying to do here, because, as Vikki points out, taxis provide a public service, but they are privately run, and they're often run by microbusinesses and individuals working freelance. It is an economically challenging sector, because, as we've discussed, the pressure from the marketplace, particularly from the app-based providers, is to drive down fares, and then the ability of drivers to invest themselves in expensive vehicles that are able to cater for disabled passengers is quite a challenging one.

We're happy to keep looking at the role that the Government has in intervening to help to co-fund some of this, but, as in all of these things, it depends on the availability of public money that we have to invest right across the transport sector. So, I'm grateful that she's raised that matter; I will give it some further thought to see what practical options there might be.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:12, 3 October 2023

(Translated)

Finally, Alun Davies.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour

I'm grateful, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'd like to continue with that theme, and hopefully prompt the Minister to think a little more on these matters. There are two issues I would like to raise with the Minister on this statement, which I very much welcome. First of all is the role of taxis in terms of delivering public transport. Now, the Government has failed for five years to deliver transport between my constituency and the Grange hospital. We've heard, and we've debated many times here, Ministers telling us that we need to use public transport and then moving services away from my constituency and not providing public transport to enable people to reach those services. So, it might well be that a taxi service may be a way of filling some of those gaps and providing a realistic travel option for my constituents. I'd be interested to understand how the Government sees those taxi services fitting into that wider model of bus services that we're looking forward to hearing about in the legislation in January.

The second point is very much a point following on from the point that Vikki Phillips makes—Vikki Howells makes; I worked with Vicky Phillips many years ago at National Union of Students—Vikki Howells made about the technology and changing pressures. Many taxi drivers that I've spoken to recently are concerned not just about the cross-border issues that you refer to, but their ability to compete with Uber and other app-based models. It might well be that there is a role for Government in supporting these microbusinesses and freelance drivers, as you've described, with support to enable them to move onto a different technological basis, to enable them to provide the same service and to compete with some of the larger company-based services that we see in the cities, where they're increasingly moving to compete in areas in the Valleys, such as Blaenau Gwent.

Photo of Lee Waters Lee Waters Labour 4:14, 3 October 2023

Well, I think it's a really interesting point. I think the reality is that technology is moving at a pace ahead of regulation, and, as I've already highlighted, the distinction we have in law between Hackney carriages and private-hire vehicles is increasingly unhelpful. Also, the distinction between what is public transport and what is private transport is becoming increasingly blurred. As we know, again, many of these apps aren't available in all parts of Wales, but the ability to now ride share, as they call it, where you share a cab, essentially, is starting to blur the distinction between what a bus service is and what a cab service is. We've tried to harness that through our Fflecsi approach, where we've tried to use some of that technology and that philosophy ourselves to try and bend the definition of a local bus. But it'll work from the other way around too. Taxis will increasingly start to act like local minibuses. And, as we move to automated cars, that is something that I think will happen with increasing frequency. We're not quite there yet, but it's certainly at a point where we can imagine it happening.

So, I think we need to make sure that we are keeping a flexible approach that allows technology to play a useful role. But technology is a disruptor by its very nature, and that's going to be particularly disruptive to the economic model that many people—we've described the nature of the driving pool—are used to and can compete in. And that's why I think by modernising in this way, by getting TfW's co-ordinating role to work alongside that, we can start to evolve how we think about taxi services, as this technology changes. And I think the points that he makes are something that we need to keep an open mind to. As I say, for this White Paper and this set of reforms, I want to bank what's already solid consensus amongst local authorities and the industry and get that change, and we can then build on that platform.