MATT COOPER: Taxi deregulation hasn’t been the smooth ride it was supposed to be

IF EVER there has been a telling story of the Celtic Tiger era it is how a mess was made of organising the provision of a sensible taxi service throughout the country.

A decade ago there were legitimate complaints about how difficult it was for people to access taxis when they wanted or needed them. There was a dramatic shortage of available vehicles in a highly regulated business, where the issue of licences was restricted to a number that was not capable of matching demand. It was not uncommon to queue for hours in the small hours of the morning in our major cities, such was the lack of available transport, and many rural areas had no taxis at all. Even during the day it could take an hour for an ordered taxi to arrive — if one came at all.

Those in possession of taxi licences were able to make lots of money and there were stories of licences changing hands for nearly €100,000 each. It wasn’t necessarily the drivers you met who benefited from that however. Often they rented the licence, and sometimes the car, from the owner, paying expensively for it. Some decided they had to buy, even at those prices, and borrowed heavily to buy a licence, even before spending on a car and all the associated running expenses.

It was not a fair situation, particularly for the consumer. It gave rise to many political rows, with the suspicion that Fianna Fáil was protecting existing taxi owners in Dublin, many of whom not just voted for Bertie Ahern and colleagues but were useful in spreading support for the party. Progressive Democrat minister Bobby Molloy had the relevant power however and he used the findings of one particular court case to move suddenly and dramatically. He opened the taxi market to full deregulation. Suddenly almost anyone who wanted a licence could have one.

Good news, it seemed, for consumers, who now had plenty of availability and choice, and for those who wanted to work in the trade, as the cost of entry was now much lower. It was a win-win for everyone it seemed, except for those who had invested heavily in buying a licence or licences. Few had sympathy for these people, although it was deserved in many cases.

But it has turned out to be a bit of a disaster. The excellent RTÉ Primetime Investigates programme last Monday evening highlighted and confirmed what many in the trade had been saying for years.

It is not merely that there are too many taxi drivers chasing too little business, meaning that some people work dangerously long hours in an effort to make a reasonable living out of their job. Full-time drivers, who do things honestly by the book, are frustrated to see people in other full-time occupations arrive out at peak times to make a few extra euro at the expense of those who have this as their only source of income. And they are angry that others get involved who have no respect for the rules and who are dragging the trade into disrepute.

For example, one in seven taxi drivers has a criminal conviction. Having a criminal conviction of course should not automatically disbar somebody from working or driving a taxi, depending of course on what the conviction was for and when it was received.

But it is utterly unreasonable that somebody with a conviction for assault, for example, or any other violent crime should be driving around passengers who have no knowledge of his (or her) past. That is especially the case when it comes to people who have committed sex offences.

There is a garda vetting process of course and the garda have refused licences. However, there have been some extraordinary cases of well known criminals having their licences awarded to them after the gardaí objected because the courts wanted to give the people a chance to earn a living. Separately, one individual, father of a convicted murderer and himself the subject of an armed attack while driving a taxi, got his licence back despite legitimate garda fears that he would be targeted again while driving. Whatever about him, what about the safety of his unwitting passengers? Anyone might have flagged him down on the streets.

Some people are driving without the relevant qualifications, renting their cars and licences from people who should not be giving them but who just want ready cash. A friend of mine — who drives a taxi full-time — was victim of a roof-sign copycat, who drove a similar car with an identical number on the roof.

The fear was that as well as not declaring any income earned from charging fares, this car would be used for illegal activity. Unfortunately, drug couriers are often use taxis, often with the knowledge of drivers, to shift or deliver contraband, often with innocent passengers picked up off the street on board.

Who would want to be in this situation or have their family in it? This goes way beyond the occasional dodgy driver who deliberately goes the long route to increase the size of the fare.

Another serious problem is that some are driving in cars that are not fit for purpose — being a danger to passengers and other commuters. Some it seems get away with it because of bribing a small number of mechanics at some NCT centres. This is a shocking allegation and it has to be expected that it will be dealt with urgently. Already the company running the NCT has dismissed mechanics. But would anything have happened if a television programme not highlighted it? Where was the regulator?

You have to wonder just what is the taxi regulator’s effective role. The issue of car inspections is for the Road Safety Authority and the gardaí. The licencing issue is the gardaí’s too. The issue of tracking income is for the Revenue Commissioners. Doyle had made some reasonable suggestions in her tenure — about things like the conditions of cars — but many of them are moot. There simply do not seem to be enough inspectors for example to enforce the standards that are required.

Junior minister Alan Kelly has started a consultation process and aims to be in a position to have reforming legislation available by the end of the year. There is much to do.

* Coming to journalism only after Garret FitzGerald had retired from politics, I met him for the first time only a few years ago. I met him a number of times since, both for radio interview and in private settings. Much has been said rightly in the last 24 hours about his integrity and his passion for carrying out public service, for which he will be remembered rightly.

There has also been much favourable comment about his intellectual capability, which few other Irish politicians could match. But two things in particular struck me about him during the times I met him.

One was his friendliness and good humour and genuine interest in people and how they were. The other was his continued interest in events; his mind was active always, always seeking to find out more. What a great way to live your life to the full.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday 4.30pm or 7pm.


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