“Every industry will need tailored help” says Committee Member whilst discussing the introduction of a motion to create guidance and extra financial support for taxi drivers in Northern Ireland.
The motion was raised asking the Assembly to recognise the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the taxi, haulage, driving instruction and private hire bus and coach sectors. The motion acknowledges that these industries have not been prioritised in terms of guidance and support packages, and has called on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward proposals to support these sectors as a matter of urgency.
During the debate there was little resistance against the motion, however there were some concerns and confusion on the topic of who should be providing the funding.
In the lead up to the discussion Ministers have come under fire from the taxi industry for a lack of support and which lead to recent protests outside Parliament Buildings.
Nichola Mallon, Minister for Infrastructure, spoke during the Northern Ireland Assembly on Tuesday, saying: “This is an extremely important issue, and while there has been much confusion, today's debate has given me a welcomed opportunity to clarify my role, remit and powers and the actions that I have taken to date, within my responsibilities, to provide assistance to the industries highlighted in the motion.
“I hope that, in setting out the facts, those who have accused me and my Department of abandonment, of not stepping up or coming up with ideas, of a lack of leadership, of having a can't-do attitude will reflect and see it as unfair.
“As the Committee Chair pointed out, I have introduced a number of measures to ease the regulatory burden on hauliers and taxi drivers to assist them during the crisis. I will turn to those before addressing the issue of guidance and financial support.
“As regulator of the taxi industry, a priority for me during the current public health emergency has been two-way communication with the industry on regulatory issues that need to be addressed. My officials and I have been in regular and ongoing contact with the industry, including individual drivers and operators and through open letters to the industry to ensure maximum reach. I recently met with a delegation of drivers outside this Building, and I listened to their concerns.
“I have put in place a number of measures to support the industry during the pandemic. I have brought forward coronavirus regulations to ensure the issue of a six-month taxi vehicle licence, automatically and free of charge, to vehicles for which the previous licence expired between 10 March 2020 and 9 October 2020. All licences have now been issued. Drivers' certificate of professional competence (CPC) training providers are also now authorised to deliver taxi periodic training remotely, via online video platforms. That enables drivers to continue to undertake some training online.”
Mallon continued to say: “I will turn to the issue of financial support to the taxi, haulage, private bus, coach and driving instructor sectors. As with many Members in the House, regardless of our party political background, we are all very aware of the hardship and challenges that are facing these sectors. There are financial assistance schemes on offer but I, like you, remain concerned for those who fall outside their scope. In fact, since this crisis hit, more than any other Minister, I have been raising the issue of the impact of COVID-19 on these sectors with Executive colleagues. I have shared a number of my correspondences to Executive colleagues with the Committee.
“It has also been made clear that my statutory functions do not include the power to create grant support for hardship or loss of income for these sectors. DFI carries regulatory responsibility for these businesses and it could only make grants available in relation to regulatory matters. This is defined in statute.
“As I stated at the Committee meeting on 29 April 2020, existing taxi legislation — I am referring to section 51 of the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 — does not extend to providing general financial support grants to the taxi industry in times of hardship and to cover lost income.”
In the winding up of the motion, David Hilditch, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure, said: “I support the motion and thank the Members who took part in the debate for their contributions on what is, no doubt, a very important matter. This is an issue that has had a massive impact on the lives of individuals and businesses severely impacted by COVID-19.
“The first thing to acknowledge is that, despite an amendment being laid to the Committee motion, it is clear that there is no disagreement about the dire situation facing these sectors.
“Everyone here today recognises the concerns of the individuals and organisations involved and the impact on their lives, their families and the businesses that they have invested time, money and effort into building. Therefore, it is a good starting point that we all recognise the problems, and we know that support is needed. That is a good place to be. I thank all contributors to the debate for their words to that effect."
Finally Hilditch concluded: “Members, it is time for the Government to show leadership, when actions of certain Ministers and Members have undermined the authority of the Executive. We must lead and recognise that each and every industry will need tailored help, support and guidance.
“A one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable for moving forward. We have to do everything in our power to support these industries.”