2. asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the actions he is taking to assist taxi drivers who are currently experiencing financial uncertainty as a result of delays to the implementation of changes relating to affiliations and operator licences. (AQO 5191/11-15)
This issue was recently brought to my attention, and I instructed theDriver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) to undertake a review of the process for affiliating drivers and vehicles to a taxi operator licence. That review has now been completed, and I am pleased to be able to advise that an amended improved process has been agreed and will be implemented within the next couple of weeks. The new process will significantly reduce turnaround times for affiliating taxi drivers and vehicles to taxi operator licences. Provided that the administration fee of £5 for each additional driver or vehicle added to the licence is paid, vehicles and drivers will be added immediately to operator licences. That will mean that the Driver and Vehicle Agency will affiliate drivers and vehicles to operator licences within a target of three working days.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. An dtiocfadh leis an Aire a dheimhniú cén uair a thiocfas na cuspóirí atá aige deileáil leis na moilleanna seo go tapaidh, cén uair a thiocfas siad i bhfeidhm; agus cén cineál monatóireachta a dhéanfar orthu? Will the Minister confirm when the new turnaround target will come into effect? What level of monitoring will there be?
Go raibh maith agat as an cheist shiumiúil sin. Tiocfaidh siad isteach i gcionn cúpla seachtain. I thank the Member for that interesting question. I hope that the new procedures will come in by mid-December. I have instructed that the new procedures for affiliating the taxi drivers and taxi vehicles to operate our licences should be implemented by mid-December, and theDVA will carry out checks weekly to ensure that the new process is working satisfactorily. I have asked for a report, by the end of March, on the operation of procedures to ensure that it is working as intended and that drivers and operators are seeing the benefits of this initiative.
Peter Weir (DUP)
As the operator licence scheme will be part of the wider considerations of the wider reform of taxi regulations, what consideration has the Ministergiven to the unique situation in Belfast city centre, and does he intend to make any changes or variations in relation to that?
I thank Mr Weir for that supplementary question. I am aware of the lobbying that is going on, particularly around the move to single-tier licensing in Belfast and the fears of the implications that that might have for the industry, particularly in Belfast and especially for public hire in Belfast. That sector has been lobbying not only Mr Weir but parties right across the Chamber on this issue, and I have to say that I have a degree of sympathy with its fears. However, I am doing my utmost to allay them.
The demand for the services of Belfast public hire, or indeed any taxi firm, will be determined by the service that is being provided and the price at which it is provided. Consumers will, and should, be able to exercise choice, and this is a matter for each consumer. It is for my Department as a regulator to set minimum standards that all operators, vehicles and drivers must meet so that taxi users can receive the service that they expect and then to ensure compliance with those standards. That is what I have relayed again and again to representatives of Belfast public hire.
I have also undertaken to work with my counterpart the Minister for Regional Development around issues such as taxi ranks and, perhaps, access to bus lanes for wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Currently, all Belfast public-hire vehicles are wheelchair accessible, so it is fair to assume that they will still use ranks and that they will still use the bus lanes. I know that they are looking for some sort of guarantee that that might be for them alone. I am keen not to alienate anyone —
The Minister has used up his time.
— in this process, be it any driver or any company. I will be happy to work with Mr Weir and other members of the Committee to ensure that this is done right.
Anna Lo (Alliance)
Some Belfast public-hire members have said to me that it will not be financially viable for them to purchase or maintain taxis with disability access if it becomes single tier. Therefore, there will be a reduction in the number of taxis with disability access for the public. Can the Minister explain what measures he is taking for this not to happen and for the current level of taxis with disability access to be provided?
I thank the Chair of the Environment Committee for her question. This is certainly not what we envisage happening, and it is certainly not what we intend to happen. Having met consumer groups, Disability Action and other representatives of consumers with disabilities, I know that it is not what they see happening either. On the contrary, what I have heard from representatives in the taxi industry is that there may be a rush to purchase taxis with disabled access, thus rendering obsolete any advantage that one sector currently has. This is about improving standards, improving accessibility and improving the service and the industry for consumers and also for drivers and operators. As I said in an earlier answer, it will really be the market that directs this.
If drivers see that there is an advantage in having disability accessible cars, I have no doubt that they will pursue that avenue.
As regards other cost implications of the implementation of the Taxis Act, at the behest of the Committee, the introduction of the Act was put back from September this year until September next year. I have looked further at this to enable drivers and operators to prepare for the implementation, and I am going to stagger the introduction of measures as part of the Act — for example, receipt printers will not now be necessary until 2016. We have looked at the costs, and it is calculated that the cost to individual drivers will be somewhere in the region of £840 over five years.