In a recent long and detailed session at the Senedd discussing the new Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle (Wales) Bill, Welsh Transport Minister Lee Waters highlighted the need for careful consideration in regulating the industry.
The Minister's comments come after the release of consultation responses, which revealed concerns about the decreasing number of drivers, the complexities of existing regulations, and the issue of women's safety.
The consultation responses, gathered from the public and industry experts, were part of the Welsh Government's efforts to gather insights and opinions on the proposed changes outlined in the White Paper released in March 2023. Among the responses, one consistent issue raised was the decline in the number of taxi drivers, reaching the lowest figure in 17 years.
Waters emphasised the need to understand the barriers to entry in the trade, mentioning that imposing requirements on hackney carriages to accommodate disabled passengers often leads to drivers switching to private hire vehicles due to the limited regulations in that sector. The Minister argued for a delicate regulatory balance, acknowledging the potential unintended consequences of regulation changes.
Moreover, Waters highlighted the increasing blurring of the distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles, partly due to technology. He pointed out that the public's understanding of the difference between the two is diminishing, as taxis can now be hailed through an app-based system. This evolution in the industry, Waters noted, challenges the antiquated distinctions created by existing regulations.
Lee Waters, Welsh Transport Minister, said: “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.”