Parliament committee looking at minibus seat cut plight
Stabroek News
January 24, 2004

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Parliament's Economic Services Committee is reviewing a petition by minibus operators about the enforcement of a law that requires them to lower their seating capacity, a move they say will be the death of their industry.

Job cuts for conductors, higher fares for commuters and the knock-on effects on the economy were among the issues raised by minibus operators who appeared before the committee yesterday at a meeting where the PPP/C representatives walked out. The committee is one of the four standing committees pf Parliament agreed through reforms and the hearing of the petition is said to be one of the first on a live issue.

The law, Section 150 (b) of the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Act, requires that each seat must be 16 inches wide and there must be 19 inches between the front of a seat to the back. This means owners of long wheelbase 15-seater vehicles will have to remove three seats in order to meet the requirements of the regulations.

The enforcement of the provisions of the law began last August, when the registration of fifteen-seater minibuses was discontinued. Certifying officers at the Licence Revenue Department are now ensuring that the minibuses which apply for the renewal of the certificate of fitness do not install more than the required number of seats. Officials within the Customs and Trade Administration are also enforcing the regulation, ensuring that fifteen-seater minibuses are not cleared for entry into the country.

Operators say they are willing to acquiesce on 12-seater buses that have been altered from the manufacturer's specifications by dealers who may have installed the extra seats. But they are unwilling to budge on the moves against buses that are original 15-seaters, by a law which they say would mean altering the vehicle specifications and increasing the risk to both drivers and passengers.

A formal petition was presented by members of the West Coast Demerara Minibus Owners Association whose representatives were heard by the committee yesterday.

In their petition to the Committee, the Association noted that the regulation which is being enforced was drafted for larger buses and cannot be arbitrarily applied to minibuses whose current seating configuration, they said, is standard worldwide.

They also noted that the government allowed this configuration for more than a decade, which gave an explanation, amounting to an assurance, that this was the standard. Based on this expectation investments were made.

"The fact that the government is now enforcing the old regulations means that the government is changing the rules in the game mid-stream," the Association says in its petition.

"No business can survive if the rules of their operation can be changed at the whim and fancy of the authorities. Business can only survive and grow under fixed rules."

Most minibus owners took out loans to purchase their vehicles and they say they will have to default on their loans once the regulations are enforced and they cannot earn the income they expected. Unless, however, if they raise their fares to compensate for the loss of seats, which will mean an estimated 20-25% hike.

The Association also noted that the minibus industry has provided employment to thousands of drivers and conductors while also supporting other industries. They concluded that related industries could be adversely affected and unemployment will rise tremendously. The new regulation will at a minimum demand that conductors be dismissed to match the reality, they said.

James McAllister, Chair-man of the Economic Services Committee, says the petition is being considered while the law is also being reviewed to determine whether there are other regulations that are not being enforced.

McAllister said after receiving the petition, the Committee unanimously agreed to undertake several steps.

The Committee summoned the Commissioner of Police to appear and provide it with information about the enforcement of the regulations and associated regulations.

But the Commissioner asked that the Committee's request be channelled through the Ministry of Home Affairs. McAllister however said he found this strange, given the powers of the Committee, which may summon persons under its terms of reference.

The Committee also asked Minister of Commerce Manzoor Nadir to provide data which would support claims that the present fare structures are economical. However Nadir did not provide the data.

Meanwhile, McAllister also said before the meeting with operators began yesterday, the PPP/C's representatives on the seven-member Committee walked out. He said they contended that they had not agreed to the course of action which was undertaken by the Committee.

Stabroek News was unable to obtain a comment from the PPP/C on the issue.