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Clean-up is 'last chance' for taxi industry

A NEW taxi review group will attempt to control the number of taxis on the streets and disqualify drivers who have a "defined" criminal record.

The measures -- the first attempt to curb people from obtaining taxi licences since the industry was liberalised a decade ago -- are part of a major drive to clean up the sector and remove criminal elements.

The group, headed by junior transport minister Alan Kelly and with former Garda Commission Pat Byrne as its vice chairman, has promised to come up with specific recommendations on licensing, enforcement, vehicle standards, supply issues and safe driver-working hours within four months.

The move follows a recent RTE 'Prime Time' expose on criminality in the industry.

Since the industry was deregulated in November 2000, the number of taxis has grown to more than 21,000 -- with more than half of those in Dublin.

The minister said it was the "last chance saloon" for the industry, where the level of fraud and criminal behaviour needed to be "cut out".

Mr Kelly said the huge numbers of taxis was not sustainable and that Attorney General Maire Whelan would be approached for legal clarifications on two key issues: controlling supply; and disqualifying drivers with "defined" criminal records.

By 'defined' records, it is understood the group is looking to set up a graded system in which minor offences would not result in the loss of a licence.

"These issues involve very difficult legal questions," Mr Kelly said. "The department will be preparing a legal submission for the AG's office as part of this review and we will take the appropriate actions from there.

"We have to eliminate fraud and illegal activity so that the majority of taxi drivers, who do their jobs properly, are not competing with rogue elements in the sector."

The group will also examine:

•The benchmarking of taxi services here with other comparable juridictions.

•Powers of enforcement officers and gardai to detect, penalise and prosecute regulation breaches.

•Procedures and practices for renting and transferring taxi licences.

•The illegal cloning of taxi licence plates.

The review group will include representatives from: the taxi sector; consumer interest; Departments of Justice and Transport; gardai; National Transport Authority; Competition Authority; and local authority.

Welcoming the review, John Usher of the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation said there was now an over-supply of taxis.

"There are now more than 21,500 taxis on the streets and we believe the sector could operate efficiently with a third of that," he said.

"We have put forward suggestions that include a buy-back scheme in which the Government could give something back to drivers who paid more than €6,000 for a licence that would allow them to leave the business with dignity."

Irish Independent