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House of Commons

Friday 23 January 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

When the results of the general election became clear on the night of 1 May, I thought that my opportunities to promote transport legislation in the House had temporarily come to an end; but, when I came fourth in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I had an opportunity to return to some unfinished business at my former Department, and to promote this Bill to license London minicabs.

My Bill corrects a long-standing and indefensible anomaly whereby minicabs throughout the rest of the country are licensed, but minicabs in London are not. As a result, those who use minicabs in the capital do not have the protection and security to which I believe they are entitled. My Bill extends that protection and security to them.

I shall present the detailed case for the Bill shortly. First, let me say that I have been in the House long enough to know the hazards of trying to enact legislation by means of a private Member's Bill. More than 20 years ago, when my party was last in opposition, I introduced a Bill compelling motor manufacturers to include delivery costs in the advertised price of a motor car, as it was impossible to buy one without paying those costs. Although eminently sensible, my Bill landed on a legislative snake as it approached the top right-hand corner of the board.

I am also conscious of the fate of earlier legislation similar to mine which was passed by the other place, but foundered here. It is always possible that, as this Bill tries to cross the legislative bridge, a parliamentary troll will appear from underneath and gobble it up; but I think there are good reasons for believing that, on this occasion, a long-overdue piece of legislation will reach the green grass on the other side.

First, there is a political consensus behind the Bill. The last Government were committed to introducing it, and it was in the present Government's election manifesto. Its sponsors come from all three of London's politicalparties, and include some particularly distinguished parliamentarians. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) is also present; I especially welcome his support. He is a former cab driver, and his new career as a Labour Back Bencher has probably deprived him of the opportunities that he used to enjoy of giving us the benefit of his views on current affairs.

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I am also pleased to see the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham), who probably represents more taxi drivers than any other hon. Member, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who probably represents more users than anyone else. No hon. Member has contacted me expressing opposition to the principle of the Bill; on the contrary, I have been struck by the depth and breadth of support for it.

Secondly, there is widespread support for the Bill outside the House. Last July, the Department consulted a range of representative bodies, all of which were supportive: for example, Age Concern, the Greater London Forum for the Elderly, the National Council of Women, the British Tourist Authority, RADAR--the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation--and the Greater London Association for Disabled People all responded positively. London First and the London tourist board have also contacted me conveying support.

I am especially grateful to the Consumers Association for its long-term work on the subject, and to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which organised a successful conference on it last week at Stringfellows--introducing me, and a number of other colleagues, to that establishment for the very first time.

Thirdly, as well as being supported by consumer interests, the Bill is supported by producer interests: the main trade association representing London's private hire cars--the London Private Hire Car Association--and the London Taxi Board, representing the bulk of London's black cabs. The Transport and General Workers Union also supports the principle of licensing minicabs. The London Private Hire Car Association, which represents the respectable end of the minicab industry, has an obvious interest in cleaning it up and in improving public confidence in minicabs. I welcome the work of Steve Wright in campaigning for the Bill.

The owners of London's black cabs have traditionally been cautious about giving their competitors the legitimacy of licensing. I particularly welcome recent statements by leaders of the black cab trade in support of the Bill. I shall return to that. Finally, the Bill is supported by interested statutory bodies. They are the Metropolitan police, the Council of Her Majesty's Stipendiary Magistrates, London local authorities and the Public Carriage Office.

Any surprise about the Bill should relate not to its introduction but to the fact that it has taken so long to get here. In 1976, legislation enabling all local authorities in England and Wales to license minicabs was introduced. London was left out because it had a different regime. London taxis are licensed by the Public Carriage Office, whereas outside London they are licensed by local authorities. Bringing minicabs within the legislation's remit required a different approach in London.

In 1989, Westminster city council proposed that the then current London Local Authorities Bill should empower London boroughs to license minicabs, but pressure from the taxi trade dissuaded the council. The Select Committee on Transport investigated the subject in 1994, and recommended that London's private hire vehicles should be regulated. The Government accepted that principle.

Efforts to bring London into line foundered for a number of reasons. Pressure on Government time often squeezed Bills out. The Bill was not in the Queen's

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Speech, nor was it in the previous one. Private Members' Bills hit the anxieties of the black cab trade which was concerned about giving credibility to the minicab by licensing it.

When I say that I have had friendly and constructive discussions with the black cab trade, diplomats might assume that that was code for an argument, but nothing could be further from the case. During the past six months, I have had many meetings with representatives of London's taxicabs, most of whom seemed to be called Geoff. There was Geoffrey Riesel, Geoffrey Trotter and Geoff Kaley. I pay tribute to them for the way in which they approached the discussions leading up to the Bill, and I thank them for their support for the Bill's principle and for the way in which they have expressed the interests and anxieties of their members. I look forward to further discussions with them as the Bill proceeds. It is a pleasure to be able to listen to London's taxi drivers without having to pay them at the same time.

I pay tribute to officials at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for their enormous help and advice during the preparation of the Bill. The Minister has also been supportive, and I thank her for that. Those are the interests that support the Bill. Why do they support it? First, there is a need to reduce over-dependence on the private motor car in London, and to enhance confidence in and the use of public transport.

Unlike other forms of public transport, black cabs and minicabs have the unique advantage of taking the passenger from door to door. However, unlike any other element of public transport, minicabs are unlicensed. Taxis have been licensed in London since 1654, but minicabs, of which there are perhaps 80,000 compared with 19,000 taxis, are not. A man can come out of prison in the morning after serving a sentence for rape, and be a minicab driver in London in the afternoon.

The minicab is unregulated, and there are no checks on the medical, driving or criminal records of the drivers. There are no restrictions on the suitability of the vehicles, and no requirement on drivers for any knowledge of the city's geography. As part of a broader strategy of promoting public transport and enhancing confidence in its safety and integrity, we need to close the final loophole by licensing London's minicabs, which are the remaining component of public transport. A Consumers Association survey in August showed that 84 per cent. of people who were interviewed in London had used either taxis or minicabs, and that 82 per cent. thought that both should be licensed. Some 54 per cent. of Londoners use minicabs.

Secondly, we are debating not a theoretical risk but a practical one. The vast majority of London's minicabs are responsibly run and provide a good service with reliable drivers. An irresponsible minority are not.

At the Suzy Lamplugh Trust conference last week, we listened to the experience of a girl who had thought she was entering a licensed minicab. She was not, and she was nearly raped. No one should have to go through what she went through. In another case, a woman got into a minicab outside Putney station on a Friday night. The car had all the accessories that one associates with a minicab, such as a two-way radio. After the vehicle moved off, the driver put one hand on the steering wheel while travelling

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at 70 mph and the other on the woman's thigh and asked for sexual favours. She jumped out when the car pulled over.

Detective Superintendent Bill Grahamslaw told the Suzy Lamplugh Trust conference that last month there were six reported attacks in minicabs, and that is probably the tip of the iceberg. The trust commissioned research on the subject, which showed that 246 out of 1,000 people who were interviewed in the capital had been subjected to incidents such as assault or dangerous driving during a journey in the capital by minicab or taxi. The vast majority of the assaults were in minicabs. The Bill will ensure that those who have been convicted of serious offences do not become minicab drivers.

Thirdly, the Bill will bring wider benefits. The unlicensed cab is not just dangerous: it may not be paying its way through the road fund, insurance or income tax. Some drivers may be here illegally, or may be claiming the dole while working. The Bill will bring them within the warm embrace of the Inland Revenue and the Contributions Agency.

That is the case for the Bill. The case against it used to come from the owners of black cabs, but that is no longer true. I should like to speak about the anxieties of those who are in the black cab trade. The Bill is about minicabs, and does not seek to reform the hackney cab legislation. However, I hope that the Minister's mind is not closed to reform or to further legislation on black cabs if that is necessary.

The testing of "the knowledge" is antiquated, and should be modernised to take advantage of modern technology. There is no reason for it taking two to three years to take the test and get the badge. That compares with nine to 18 months in 1972. I understand that there is now the same number of oral test examiners in the Public Carriage Office as there was in 1972, although the number of people doing the knowledge has doubled. That queue is a barrier to entry to the taxi trade, which needs more drivers.

I am pleased to hear that the Public Carriage Office is working on improvements to the present procedure with a view to streamlining it. It is recruiting more examiners, and, as a result, the intervals between tests are reducing. In the medium term, I hope that it will look to computer-based examination systems, and, in consultation with the black cab trade, will make an impact on the time that is taken to test the knowledge.

Licensing minicabs may have an impact on the other section of the private hire market--black cabs. In the longer term, there may be a more unified industry, with taxi firms also running minicabs, a system of multiple qualifications, or, eventually, a single qualification. Nothing in the Bill prevents reform, but I hope that the advocates of more ambitious legislation will recognise that the Bill's prime purpose is to license minicabs and not to re-regulate taxis. I have listened to the black cab trade, and I am prepared to continue listening.

I shall now turn to the Bill's details. In the main, it follows existing legislation covering minicabs outside London, and to that extent it should cause little difficulty for the House. I shall highlight the main differences as we proceed. The principal one is a reference in the Bill to minicab drivers having appropriate topographical knowledge. Clause 1 sets out the key definitions of such

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items as a private hire vehicle, an operator and a booking, and in particular the definition of when a vehicle is being used--on duty, as a non-lawyer might put it.

Clauses 2 to 5 deal with operator licensing. Operators receive bookings for private hire vehicles from the public by telephone or by a direct visit to the operating centre, and arrange for the bookings to be fulfilled by drivers and vehicles. The operator must be a fit and proper person, and the Bill introduces for the first time the concept of an operating centre--the place where the booking is taken. That means that there must be a place rather than a mobile phone number, so that one can check on the operator, his premises and his records. Clause 4 makes it clear that bookings must go through the operating centre, and that the operator must use licensed drivers.

Clause 5 ensures that, if the operator sub-contracts the booking to another operator, the customer is still protected. That provision is not in the existing local government legislation. Clauses 6 to 11 deal with private hire vehicles and the responsibilities of their owners. The vehicles must be licensed, and, as outside London, there are no restrictions on the number that can be licensed. The vehicle must not look like a taxi, it must be safe and comfortable, it may be tested up to three times a year, and it will be subject to spot checks. It must be identifiable so that a passenger knows that he is getting into a licensed vehicle.

At the moment in London, it is illegal to display any mark to say that the vehicle is a minicab. Outside London, vehicles have an appropriate licence plate or roof sign so that someone knows that he is getting into a licensed vehicle. The current system in London promotes the practice of getting into an unmarked car. If the vehicle has a meter, it must be of a certain standard. That is not a new requirement; it replicates what happens outside London.

Clause 12 requires the driver of a PHV to be licensed.

Clause 13 deals with the procedure for getting a London PHV driver's licence. It addresses the key issue of topographical knowledge for minicab drivers. The existing legislation for minicabs outside London contains no equivalent to subsection (3). I have included it in my Bill following the discussions that I have had with the black cab trade.

I referred a moment ago to the trade's anxieties about the legislation; it was explained to me that a requirement for minicab drivers to have an appropriate level of knowledge would do much to allay concern. I believe that such a requirement makes sense anyway--indeed, the outcome of the Department's consultation exercise showed a clear consensus that minicab drivers should have to prove some degree of topographical knowledge. I have therefore included in my Bill a clear provision enabling the Secretary of State to satisfy himself that would-be minicab drivers possess an appropriate level of knowledge of London and general topographical skills. If the wording is capable of improvement, I hope that there will be an opportunity to make the improvements during the Bill's later stages.


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