Passenger Transport Amendment Bill
Debate resumed from 31 October.
Mr O'FARRELL (Ku-ring-gai—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [2.24 p.m.]: I lead for the Opposition in the debate on this legislation. At the outset, I indicate that the Opposition will not oppose this legislation. The New South Wales taxi industry is an important part of the transport infrastructure of this State. To give honourable members an indication of just how significant the industry is, in his second reading speech the Minister described it as a $1.1 billion industry.
It is also useful to examine the statistics associated with this industry. A report of the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal [IPART] indicates that in Sydney alone there are 4,537 licence owners, whereas across the rest of New South Wales there are approximately 930. In Sydney, there are three taxi companies or co-operatives providing network services, whereas in the rest of New South Wales there is one per area. Within Sydney, there are 12 companies and co-operatives, whereas across New South Wales there is a single one. Across Sydney, there are 9,000 accredited taxi operators, whereas across the rest of New South Wales there are 1,500. Throughout Sydney, there are something like 20,000 licensed taxidrivers, whereas in the rest of New South Wales there are approximately 5,000.
By any measure, the New South Wales taxi industry is a significant industry that is characterised by significant investment and significant employment. Whether in Sydney or Gunnedah, Tweed Heads or Bega, taxis are an increasingly important part of the transport network of this State, especially for those in the community who do not have ready access to public transport or those who, because of age or disability, are forced to rely on the taxi industry. This legislation arises from the recommendations of the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal's report "Review of the Taxi Cab and Hire Car Industries", and essentially seeks to implement recommendations arising from that 1999 review. It specifically seeks to rationalise and clarify the existing regulatory regime that applies to taxis and hire cars. It increases the responsibility of networks and operators and to some extent clarifies existing offences.
The first point that must be made in addressing the taxi industry is, as I have indicated by reference to statistics, that the taxi industry ranges from heavy coverage in metropolitan Sydney to one or two taxi licences in certain country towns. That variation is best demonstrated by the price of taxi licences. Whereas in Sydney last year a licence was traded for approximately $250,000, in Coffs Harbour last year a licence was traded for $440,000. Equally, if one looks to the north of the State—I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary, the honourable member for Canterbury, has been there–and speaks to operators in the Tweed district, one would know that between Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads there are significant differences in the value of taxi plates which to some extent result in distortions in investment patterns as well as impacts on service levels and service standards.
I am pleased that in the review of the taxi industry the chairman of IPART, Tom Parry, recognised some of the problems that separate country from metropolitan areas and sought, through some of his recommendations, to address them. I acknowledge that by instituting a further review, at least the Government appears to be sympathetic towards the interests of those who are either owners, operators, or users of taxis in regional and rural areas of New South Wales. It is important in rural and regional New South Wales for improvements to be made equal to those being made in metropolitan areas. It is important also that across-the-board service standards are increased. The second point that must be made is that this legislation underscores the fact that since the Carr Government was elected in 1995, it has not been able to come to grips with either the taxi industry or the hire car industry in this State, either under Minister Langton or Minister Scully.
On almost a six-monthly basis until last year the Minister for Transport, whether it was Minister Langton or Minister Scully, would trot out in front of television cameras, newspaper reporters and radio journalists and promise improvements to service from Sydney, particularly from Sydney's taxi operations. I cannot recall exactly how many times either Mr Langton or Mr Scully, for instance, promised to put an end to the 3.00 p.m. changeover drought in taxis in this city. The reality is that if I go on to Macquarie Street in half and hour, I will find that nothing has changed between 1995 and 2000. The referral of the matter to IPART in 1999 and the introduction of this legislation is an admission of the failure of any attempt by the Carr Government to lift standards.
In a sense, that is not surprising. The Government has not been prepared to equip the Department of Transport to fulfil its obligations, which already existed under the Passenger Transport Act, to impose better service levels, better standards for users of taxis, not only in Sydney but across New South Wales. Successive transport Ministers have spoken out of one side of their mouths about the need to improve taxi services and out of the other side of their mouths they have said to the director-general of transport, "Don't worry about that, I will not give you the resources to follow these things through."
However, I do at least give the present Minister for Transport some credit for sending this matter to IPART. I give IPART enormous credit for the way in which it has examined both the taxi and hire car industries. I believe, as evidenced from the origin of the Passenger Transport Act, that the concept of delegating down to those more closely involved in the enforcement of transport standards is worthwhile. However, I repeat, of course, that that is neither in line with the rhetoric of Labor in opposition or their pronouncements since the election until last year.
The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal made some 23 recommendations, ranging from an increase in the number of taxis in Sydney to suggestions that options be drawn up delegating taxi regulation in non-metropolitan areas to local councils. The Opposition, in supporting this legislation, looks forward to the Government addressing the wider issues affecting the taxi and hire car industries. In closing, I express my concern about an issue that affects all the electorates represented in this Chamber, that is, the ongoing and continuing shortage of wheelchair-accessible taxis and the impact of that shortage on the lives of those in our community who rely upon those taxis as their sole means of transport.
I acknowledge that the Government, in line with its earlier announcements, has made grand promises about improving the situation of the disabled. It has sought to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. In my view the IPART report is scathing in its criticism of the licence fee being set too high for people to take up the licences for wheelchair-accessible taxis. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary, the honourable member for Canterbury, who is in the Chamber, that this is one matter a that surely has to be beyond politics. Disabled people in all of our communities rely significantly upon taxis. We need to work together to find a more urgent solution than that is proposed in the Minister's second reading speech to overcome the significant delays that these people face on a regular basis. They deserve a better quality of life than that and the Minister should address that as a matter of urgency.
Mr MOSS (Canterbury—Parliamentary Secretary) [2.34 p.m.]: I support the Passenger Transport Amendment Bill. The taxi industry is important in supporting business and the general public in New South Wales. My constituents tell me that they are happy with what we have achieved so far. Airconditioning in taxis, the introduction of global positioning systems for greater driver safety and the introduction of changeover taxi ranks have all changed the taxi industry for the better. The Government has achieved much in cleaning up the taxi industry, but the recommendations in the 1999 report of the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal [IPART] make it clear we can do more. The amendments proposed in the bill underpin the package of reforms announced by the Minister for Transport in July 2000 to improve the level of service and professionalism of the New South Wales taxi industry. I will highlight for the benefit of the House one of the main reforms put forward by this legislation: the establishment, for the first time, of performance standards for taxi networks and standards for taxi operators to support the networks in the delivery of taxi services.
The purpose of setting such standards is to ensure that taxi users consistently receive the level of service they expect. The taxi industry is a complex multilayered industry comprising networks, operators, licensees and drivers. Networks are ultimately responsible for the overall delivery of taxi services. However, they must rely on the co-operation of their member operators and drivers in the delivery of those services. It is, therefore, imperative that each sector of the industry is accountable for the delivery of the service with which it is charged. To achieve this consistently higher level of service the bill includes a statutory condition for the drafting of network service standards. It proposes the making of standards with which networks must themselves comply and standards with which networks must ensure taxicab operators and drivers comply. Particular emphasis is placed on the obligation of networks to supervise and monitor taxicab operators and drivers.
The bill provides for the setting of standards for networks in a range of areas including service delivery to the public; responsibilities to operators and drivers and reporting requirements. Service delivery standards will specify service levels for booking services and taxi response times. In setting service standards, it is recognised that they must be based on the needs and expectations of the public, and that they must be measurable and achievable. They must also be developed in consultation with key stakeholders, including disability groups and the Transport Workers Union. The amendments also strengthen the penalties that can be imposed for non-compliance with these standards. To assist networks in achieving the service standards set, the bill provides for networks to be able to direct taxicab operators and taxicab drivers to be on the road and to attend specific locations for hirings.
The bill also provides for the public reporting on the performance of networks in the Sydney metropolitan area. This report, which will be published quarterly by the Taxi and Hire Car Bureau, will include details of waiting times for bookings, waiting times for wheelchair-accessible taxi bookings and the proportion of network taxis on the road at certain times of the day, including the traditional afternoon taxidriver changeover period. This will provide greater accountability and transparency within the taxi industry. As networks are to be responsible for ensuring the provision of a high-quality taxi service to the public, it is important that taxi operators comply with all requests made of them by their network to provide the required standard of service.
The provisions in the bill relating to taxi operators set out the basic obligations imposed on taxicab operators. Among the conditions is a statutory condition requiring the operator to comply with all service standards determined by the Director-General of the Department of Transport. Taxicab operators will be required to support the network to which they are affiliated in the delivery of high-quality taxi service. The purpose of the operator standards is to detail the requirements that must be met to achieve this outcome. An operator authorisation will be subject to an operator continuing to meet the standards While some responsibility for the supervision and monitoring of taxicab drivers has been assigned to taxi networks, operators must assume the major responsibility for ensuring the suitability of the persons they engage to be taxidrivers. The standards, therefore, require that an operator ensure that any bailee or employee taxidriver engaged to drive a taxicab holds a current driver authority issued by the Department of Transport and a current New South Wales driver's licence. In addition to those requirements, an operator of a wheelchair-accessible taxi must ensure that any bailee or employee taxidriver engaged to drive a wheelchair-accessible taxi has also completed the wheelchair- accessible taxidriver training program. The amendments proposed by this bill will give the Taxi and Hire Car Bureau a clear direction to set and monitor standards in the taxi industry. It is anticipated that through this approach a culture of continuous improvement within the taxi industry can be fostered.
Though the Deputy Leader of the Opposition indicated that the Opposition will support this bill, he made reference to a number of matters that may require clarification. First, he mentioned a problem with the afternoon changeover period. I point out, as the Minister did in his second reading speech, that the Government not only is concentrating on that issue for the long term but already has introduced an additional 100 special taxi licences for operation during the changeover period between the hours of 2.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. So, while the Deputy Leader of the Opposition may be experiencing trouble during that period, he certainly would not be having as much trouble since the Government introduced those extra taxicabs.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition also made reference to wheelchair-accessible taxis. Already, this Government has made available 400 new wheelchair-accessible taxi licences. To provide incentives for a taxi operator to take up operating wheelchair-accessible cabs, the Government is considering providing another 200 wheelchair-accessible taxi licences and making those available for a 20-year period. That is a great incentive for the taxi industry. So the matters raised by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition have been adequately dealt with by the Government. But, having said that, I am pleased that the Opposition has indicated its support for the bill, which I commend to the House.
Ms MEAGHER (Cabramatta—Parliamentary Secretary) [2.42 p.m.]: The taxi industry is a crucial part of the public transport network. The elderly, people without cars, young people out on the town for the night, people with disabilities, and businessmen and women all rely on this industry to a large degree. People in my electorate have told me that they want a taxi service that is clean, comfortable and reliable. I have noticed a vast improvement in the industry since the Carr Labor Government's last plank of reforms. Taxidrivers are now wearing uniforms, their taxis are cleaner, drivers are safer with screens or cameras installed in taxis, and English standards have improved. However, we can always do more. My constituents tell me that we need to now address the quality of services delivered. The Carr Labor Government is committed to the continual improvement of the quality of services within the industry.
In 1999 the Government asked the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal [IPART] to review regulation of the taxi and hire car industries under the Passenger Transport Act 1990, as part of the Government's commitment to review the levels of service delivery within the taxi and hire car industry. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal recommended immediate and longer term actions to improve the regulatory basis of the taxi and hire car industries, to increase the availability of taxis through releasing more taxi plates, to institute regular public reporting of taxi service standards, and to establish cost-recovery enforcement practices.
The Government supports the majority of the IPART recommendations. On 6 July 2000 the Carr Labor Government announced a package of reforms for the taxi industry aimed at improving the level of service provided to the public including people requiring wheelchair-accessible taxis. That package resulted from concerns expressed from both within the industry as well as from the community. Part of this reform included a raft of initiatives designed to improve service delivery, make the industry more viable, and make the taxi industry more accountable for service delivery.
There are 14 networks in Sydney, and 83 country networks. The networks are typically separate companies or co-operatives. In Sydney, booking services are centralised with the 14 networks operating through three booking services. The Passenger Transport Act currently specifies some 120 taxi offences. However, many are imprecise and are not specifically targeted to improve service delivery. The proposed amendments ensure each sector of the industry is accountable for service delivery. The networks need to be held accountable for the overall service quality of the network. The growing trend to absentee licensees, some of whom reside outside Australia and have no interest in the licence other than as a business investment, has not helped improve the standard of service.
The amendments in this bill address some of the problems within the taxi industry. Crucial to the Government's reforms is the amendment of the Passenger Transport Act 1990, which will provide clear assignment of accountabilities for service performance on networks, licence holders, operators and drivers, with strengthened penalties for non-compliance; give networks power to direct operators and drivers in order to achieve their service delivery standards; and simplify the regulatory regime to make the requirements easier to understand and enforce.
The Government also recognises that more stringent service performance standards are required within the industry to allow more rigorous analysis of the network's performance. The network's performance as compared to the standards will be published four times per year to allow for more competition between the networks. For the first time, taxi users will be able to judge, using published benchmarks, which networks they wish to use. Quarterly performance reports will be published for each network in the metropolitan area on waiting times for bookings, waiting times for wheelchair-accessible taxis, waiting times for taxis with baby capsules, waiting times for particular areas in the metropolitan area, and the proportion of network taxis on the road at certain times of the day, including the traditional changeover period.
These amendments will allow the appropriate level of scrutiny of the networks, operators and drivers, and provide for accountability for service delivery at all levels. The public interest expects high levels of service and accountability from the taxi industry. This bill clearly sets out that the taxi networks are responsible for ensuring that network standards are met and that drivers provide a better standard of service. Currently, some licences are merely treated as investment instruments where the highest financial return is achieved through minimising costs rather than improving service. The increase in values for taxi licences has occurred over some decades. Market values and the regulatory arrangements have allowed the trading to realise a very significant total market value today of approximately $1.1 billion for taxi licences.
The new service standards will put the onus on taxi networks to develop strategies for improving service performance. In the case of taxi availability during the changeover period, the Department of Transport will set minimum waiting times for bookings. A critical part of the proposed reforms is improved assessment of taxi performance. The networks standards will therefore require that the Department of Transport be given access to network data relating to service delivery by its booking service and by taxis attached to the network, which will allow for the publishing of the quarterly performance reports.
When directed by a network, drivers will have to accept a booking, or provide a service at any location at any time rather than "refuse a fare". Networks will only be able to use this authority to meet the network service delivery standards set by the Department of Transport. Taxi operators will continue to be authorised by the Department of Transport. They will be required to form part of the authorisation standards. Initial authorisation, and authorisation renewal, will depend upon the operator being a fit and proper person. Operators will also be required to meet the requirements of the Department of Transport in relation to financial viability, vehicle safety and maintenance, driver safety—provision of a screen or camera, et cetera—maintaining appropriate insurance over the vehicle and driver, and miscellaneous issues such as provision of a uniform for the driver.
Operators will also be required to be part of a taxi network. They will have to comply with the service requirements determined by the network, and the network will have to meet the network service delivery standards imposed by the Department of Transport. Operators will also be required to allow access to departmental officers for the purpose of auditing records and systems and checking vehicles. These reforms will require operators to deliver a quality service. However, this must not be at the expense of a driver's pay and conditions.
Therefore, another of the key standards is that operators must comply with the taxidriver's contract determination or face financial penalties and possible suspension or cancellation of their operator authorisations. To ensure that network and operator service standards are deliverable, the Department of Transport will finalise them following consultation with the taxi industry and the Transport Workers Union. The standards are an integral part of the amendments currently before the House. Since the announcement of the reforms in July, the Government has established the Taxi and Hire Car Bureau to provide a one-stop shop for all taxi and hire car inquiries. The bureau will be responsible for enforcement and compliance, licence and authorisation administration, complaints management, regulation and policy development, and ongoing liaison with the industry.
There will be a greater on-road compliance presence through increased numbers of compliance officers, who will be attached to the new Taxi and Hire Car Bureau. The bureau has also commenced the release of an additional 450 taxi licences over the next few months, including 200 new wheelchair-accessible plates, to increase the numbers of taxis on the road in the Sydney metropolitan area. It has also commenced the release of 200, 20-year transferable wheelchair-accessible taxi licences to improve the level of service to people who use wheelchairs. Already 60 of these have been taken up, and 60 have been put out for tender. I am confident that the Passenger Transport Amendment Bill will go a long way towards improving the quality of service that the people of New South Wales receive from the taxi industry. I commend the bill to the House.
Mr BROWN (Kiama) [2.51 p.m.]: This bill is another example of the Carr Labor Government's commitment to providing increased and better value taxi services for the New South Wales public. It is also another example of its commitment to the ordinary working people of New South Wales. The Government has already implemented a series of reforms to the taxi industry, including the introduction of taxi video surveillance cameras, improved driver training requirements, new English language qualifications, extended hours of operation for the taxi hotline, the introduction of a charter of rights and responsibilities, airconditioning of taxis and increased taxi numbers. While these reforms are delivering better services and drivers are experiencing the benefits of the safety measures, the Government recognises that more improvements can be made to improve taxi services. The public expects higher levels of service and accountability from the taxi industry, and this bill will ensure that the industry delivers on its responsibilities.
The bill sets out clearly that the taxi networks are responsible for ensuring that network standards are met and that drivers provide a better standard of service. However, those advances will not be at the expense of drivers' pay and conditions. Under successive governments the performance of the taxi industry has sometimes fallen well short of public expectations. Calls for reform have been widespread, with recurring public criticism of the lack of taxis, particularly at peak times and at the changeover period. Taxidrivers have also come in for a fair degree of criticism. However, the public must be aware that, on the whole, taxi driving can be a difficult occupation.
Taxidrivers in New South Wales are regarded as independent contractors rather than employees of taxi operators. This bailee-bailor arrangement, which covers the working responsibilities and obligations between the taxidrivers and their employers, has been commonly cited as a fundamental impediment to taxi industry improvement. The terms and conditions of drivers are specified by the Taxi Industry (Contract Drivers) Contract Determination issued by the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission. The agreement covers matters such as pay-in rates and entitlements for permanent drivers: sick leave, annual leave and long service leave. However, most drivers are casual and do not qualify for those latter benefits. All drivers have the option of paying their taxi operators a 50 per cent commission on all fares or a set maximum pay-in amount beyond which the driver retains all fares. Pay-in rates vary for the different days in the week. As honourable members would expect, they are at their greatest on Fridays and Saturdays. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal found that, in practice, it appears that few Sydney taxidrivers are paid these entitlements and most operators prefer to receive fixed pay-ins.
Outside Sydney, the commission-based system is used almost exclusively. The preference for the fixed pay-in rates appears to result from a range of factors. These include the fact that casual drivers are a large part of the Sydney industry, particularly on night shifts; the pay-in amount is a risk-free income stream to operators; and experienced drivers favour fixed pay-ins because they retain all of their revenue after they have earned sufficient to cover the pay-in amount. There are about 5,700 taxis to cover all of New South Wales. That can lead to shortages, which is why in July the Government announced the release of a further 450 taxi plates; 120 of those plates have already been released and tenders have been received for 60 more. There are approximately 25,000 registered taxidrivers in New South Wales, and a significant proportion are from non-English speaking backgrounds. The Government is determined to protect workers who may not be able to argue strongly for their rights. Like all industries, some elements of the taxi industry are unscrupulous and may charge in excess of the usual pay-in rate. The Government is determined that any gains in service delivery are not paid for by reducing returns to drivers.
Unscrupulous taxi operators will not be able to sidestep their responsibilities under the proposed legislation by merely increasing pay-in rates for drivers. The proposed amendments will allow the Department of Transport to vary, suspend or cancel a person's authorisation if the driver's pay-in rate exceeds the rate as determined in the Taxi Industry (Contract Drivers) Contract Determination 1984. The newly established Taxi and Hire Car Bureau will be particularly active in ensuring that drivers' pay and conditions are maintained according to the contract determination. The taxi industry will be made fully aware of its responsibilities to drivers. The Transport Workers Union will also have a key role in ensuring that its members within the taxi industry know their rights and the determined pay-in rates for shifts. To provide higher levels of service the taxi industry must retain its quality drivers, especially as the Government is making more taxi licences available. The bill is putting in place the framework to achieve that. I commend the bill to the House.
Ms NORI (Port Jackson—Minister for Small Business, and Minister for Tourism) [2.56 p.m.], in reply: I thank honourable members for their contributions. I note the concerns raised by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and I will briefly address some of them on behalf of the Minister for Transport. One of his concerns is the afternoon driver changeover. In July this year the Government commenced a six-month trial of supervised taxi ranks in the central business district to match passenger destinations with taxis heading back to base. There are now four ranks in the central business district which are supervised between 1.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m., Monday to Friday. Passenger feedback and driver responses have been positive.
Another issue raised was the release of licences for wheelchair-accessible taxis. The Government has already released 120 such licences in the past three months. The response has been very positive. There is a great deal of interest from prospective owners, and the balance of 80 licences will be released early in the new year. The size of these releases is in stark contrast to the numbers released by the previous Government. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition also spoke about taxis in country areas. I reiterate, as has been announced by the Minister for Transport, that a discussion paper on regional and rural taxi issues will be released for comment early in the new year. The Government recognises—and I do as well, as the Minister for Tourism—that conditions in non-metropolitan areas are unique. For that reason the discussion paper will canvass all areas of concern in country areas. I commend the bill to the House.
Motion agreed to.
Bill read a second time and passed through remaining stages.