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24 Apr 2007 : Column 252WH—continued

There is an essential truth in the suggestion that sewage treatment is inherently more expensive in the south-west, although the requirements are the same. That is the historic picture of costs, but although the principle of meeting the same standards will hold, customers of water companies will continue to face issues and costs particular to their regions. For example, the customers of Thames Water will, over the next few years, have to meet the costs of further improvements to water quality in the Thames tideway—a necessary but
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extremely demanding exercise that will be reflected in their bills, making them higher than they would otherwise have been.

Matthew Taylor: Will the Minister give way?

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman left me very short of time, and I want to respond to some of the specific points that he raised, so I shall press on.

Another reason why the Government are sceptical about the idea of the customers of one water company subsidising those of another is that such a subsidy would be very difficult to target. The overall effect would be that low-income customers in other water company areas would subsidise all customers, including owners of second homes in the south-west.

I would like to speak positively about what can be done about water bills. The true water affordability problem is for those who are least able to pay. That is particularly serious in areas with high water charges and low incomes, and it is worst of all in the south-west. That is the problem that we must look at, and it would not be addressed by blanket subsidies to all customers, including the well-off in the south-west.

The Government acknowledge that there is an issue with water affordability, particularly for those with the lowest incomes. We have already taken action, through legislation, when there might be a risk to household health. We have legislated to stop household water disconnection because of inability to pay. We have also set up protection for vulnerable groups on meters who might otherwise cut back on water that they could not afford.

In 2004, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, a cross-Government steering group reviewed the way low-income households are helped with their water and sewerage charges. A wide range of stakeholders were involved in discussions with the steering group, and the Government published their report on the review in 2005. Since then, the Government have been working with Ofwat, water companies and the Consumer Council for Water to take forward the recommendations in that report. They include measures, which I am sure hon. Members are aware of, to look into alternative tariff and charging options, and a pilot study in the south-west. I would like to talk briefly about the progress of that work.

The first strand is to look at the scope for redistributing the burden among customers of a company through tariffs and charges. The Government reviewed methods of water charging and tariffs in 1997-98, which resulted in the Water Industry Act 1999, including protection against disconnection and the free meter option. We are currently working with water companies to develop a model to look at the distribution effect of tariffs, particularly the winners and losers that would be created among households. The model is looking at the effects of a wide range of measured and unmeasured tariffs. One tariff that the group is looking at is the rising block tariff, offering a free or cheap basic amount of water to a household, with higher charges above that.

We have set up a working level group to look at the results of that work, and to advise on how lower income groups might be affected by any change to the current charging system. The members include representatives from the Treasury, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water and water companies. The group is considering how tariffs might distribute the total burden of a company’s
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charges in ways that might address affordability and promote water saving. We hope that that work will provide some real ways forward.

There has been discussion about whether second home owners pay a fair share of costs. The Government recognise that there are issues about the balance between fixed costs of the network and costs that vary according to how much water is used. Ofwat regulates that balance when it approves company charge schemes. I certainly agree that second homes should pay a fair share, and we are willing to look at any proposals to improve fairness on this issue.

The other strand of work from the report is the south-west affordability assistance pilot study. That involves the Government, South West Water and other stakeholders, and it is being run in the south-west to assess the combined impact of benefits checks, water efficiency measures and metering. The Government have been working on that pilot study with South West Water, the Consumer Council for Water and Ofwat since 2005. The pilot study is targeting and assessing the effectiveness of water affordability assistance to lower income households in the south-west.

The pilot study is assessing the combined effect of benefits checks, water efficiency measures and metering on low-income households. The pilot—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. The Minister will have to finish his speech in 15 seconds. I have allowed extra time because of my intervention earlier in the debate.

Barry Gardiner: I am most grateful, Sir Nicholas. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, who took 20 minutes to make his remarks, is not listening to my response; he sees more importance in turning and chatting to his friends. The pilot study in the south-west will be—

Matthew Taylor: On a point of order, Sir Nicholas.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I fear that it will be a bogus point of order. I suggest that the Minister is allowed to reply. I am sure that if he has not responded fully, he will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Matthew Taylor: But I am listening.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Yes, we accept that.

Barry Gardiner: The pilot study in the south-west is attacking the affordability issue on two fronts: helping households to make savings on their water bills, and increasing their income through benefits checks. The average household toilet uses about 30 per cent. of a property’s water supply, and the relatively cheap installation of a toilet hippo will reduce toilet water usage by one third. Estimates based on expertise with similar energy-related schemes suggest that benefits entitlement checks can increase incomes by up to £25 a week. The hon. Gentleman actually raised those issues in his own remarks.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. We genuinely have run out of time. I allowed a little injury time, because of the interventions earlier in the debate, and I hope that that is accepted by the Members present.

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1.2 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The streets of the west end of London—in particular, Soho and Covent Garden—have become a dangerous free-for-all. I worry that it is a matter of when, rather than if, a serious accident—perhaps even a fatality—occurs involving one of the unlicensed rickshaws or pedicabs that have proliferated so strikingly on London’s thoroughfares. That situation is not acceptable in a 21st-century global marketplace such as London.

Two facts clearly illustrate the situation with regard to unmotorised cycles for hire—pedicabs—in London. First, the pedicab industry still operates without almost any enforceable external controls over licensing, registration or traffic management. Secondly, pedicab numbers are rising very quickly indeed. The latest estimates are that within the city of Westminster alone, their numbers have risen by some 50 per cent. in the past six months.

The issue is not confined to the west end of London, and I appreciate that there are an increasing number of pedicabs in places such as Brighton. Within London, the issue is not confined to my constituency, and I suspect that my neighbours in Regent’s Park and Kensington, North and in Holborn and St. Pancras have similar concerns, albeit on a different scale from mine. Tonight, it is estimated that some 500 pedicabs will be out on the streets of Westminster touting for business. Naturally, the situation will become ever more acute as spring turns into summer.

It is important to realise that many people and groups are completely opposed to pedicabs operating on our streets in any form—I shall represent their views, although I do not agree with them entirely, because I believe that pedicabs make for some of the colour of the life that we live in London—and that other people want pedicabs licensed as quickly as possible. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, for example, which represents about 7,000 drivers in the capital, has always been strongly opposed to pedicabs. The association claims that its opposition does not stem from a fear of competition, because pedicab rides are typically very short journeys that would otherwise be taken on foot or by bus rather than by cab. Rather, its concern stems from pedicab riders’ daily infringement of traffic and parking regulations, and from seeing the real danger that pedicab passengers and riders face.

Even with a licensing regime, the LTDA claims that there is an urgent necessity—recognised by all parties, including the Government—for parking and traffic regulations to be applied to pedicabs, as they are to other licensed vehicles. The provisions to achieve that purpose were included in the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill, but the Government blocked them in Committee in November 2005. The LTDA has since repeatedly urged the Government to bring forward the necessary legislation as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the London Pedicab Operators Association has brought some 200 riders into its organisation, which although a welcome development, still represents a minority of operators. The LPOA encourages higher safety standards for pedicabs, but the pedicabs that passengers climb into tonight are likely to
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be dangerously unsafe in several ways. First, without background checks, it is perfectly feasible for criminals to operate pedicabs, which is entirely unacceptable in the operation of black cabs, for example. At least one rape has been committed by a pedicab operator, and further anecdotal evidence suggests that riders include illegal immigrants, foreign students, who ignore the terms under which they are allowed into the country by working longer hours than authorised, and others who under any sensible licensing regime would be considered unsuitable for such work and daily contact with the public. We do not tolerate such risks for licensed cab drivers or bus drivers, and we should not tolerate it for this new mode of transport.

Although the taxi drivers do not agree with me, I think that the pedicabs are here to stay. In a way, it is a mode of transport that looks to the past: all who have travelled to India and China will have seen rickshaws and pedicabs. There is a certain convenience that comes with a pedicab, and it adds to the colour and gaiety of city life here in London. They are here to stay, and we must consider the manner of their regulation. The Minister and I have discussed the issue privately, and she knows that I am instinctively wary of ever more legislation and regulation. Quite rightly, the Department believes that registration should be a last resort, but I suspect that the proliferation of pedicabs means that on road and personal safety grounds, we must give the issue much more urgent consideration.

Secondly, the pedicab does not have any safety requirements whatever, presenting a major risk to passengers and other road users. Again, such a situation simply would not be tolerated for any other mode of transport. Thirdly, without adequate powers to enforce traffic regulations, pedicabs are able to flout parking and wider traffic rules. Tonight, if one were to go from Regent street, where the pedicabs parked outside Hamleys block the bus lane, to Cambridge circus or to any west end theatre, one would see that we must urgently enforce traffic regulations on the grounds of safety and because of the duty of local authorities to manage the transport network properly.

In an operation lasting just six months in the Charing Cross area, Westminster city council’s community protection team warned 124 pedicab operators for obstruction of the highway. Nine operators were subsequently arrested, and of those, seven were successfully prosecuted for wilful obstruction. The other two failed to appear in court. The highest fine paid so far has been a rather derisory £75 with £35 costs. The London Pedicab Operators Association claims to have an insurance policy that costs £275 per pedicab per annum, but I do not know whether it covers serious injury to drivers, passengers, or indeed pedestrians who are caught up in any accidents.

The Charing Cross initiative was a small-scale operation over a limited period, and because of the current dearth of legislation, it did not cover the full range of traffic offences that affect my constituency day and night. Due to the complete absence of a registration regime, it is impossible to verify how many offences pedicab riders have committed. That represents a truly dangerous gap in our knowledge. The anecdotal evidence that I have heard from people who spend their evenings in theatreland, or who are local residents of Soho or Covent Garden, suggests that the study has revealed only the tip of the iceberg.

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One of the difficulties in London is the proliferation of organisations with a certain amount of responsibility, including local authorities—in this case Westminster city council and the London borough of Camden—and, to an extent, Transport for London, under the auspices of the Mayor of London. TFL has been working with the industry to develop a registration scheme, which I greatly support, and recognises the urgency with which it needs to conclude that process. That course of action has the support of the Metropolitan police, Westminster city council and the responsible pedicab operators.

I hope that the Government will use their influence to ensure that any licensing regime requires operators to undergo a full check before being allowed to work, just as with any other operator of public transport, and ensures that riders have a good working knowledge of the area in which they operate and that they are physically fit. Any regime should also ensure that vehicles are fit for purpose and not in imminent danger of toppling over, which is the case with so many older pedicabs, that fares are standardised and that operators face the same penalties as other road users in the event of their contravening traffic regulations. However, if we are genuinely serious about protecting road users and pedestrians, we urgently need to give local authorities statutory powers to enforce traffic and parking rules against contraventions by pedicabs, in accordance with any licensing regime. It has become abundantly clear over recent months that the only truly feasible way of achieving that would be to introduce primary legislation.

Westminster city council’s parking attendants have no means by which to issue penalty charge notices to pedicabs, despite the fact that any recent visitor to the west end cannot have failed to notice the pedicabs blocking roads, junctions and bus lanes, undermining emergency access to streets and pavements as a result, and generally making an already challenging transport network that much more difficult for pedestrians and other road users. I am sure that the Minister would be happy to come to the west end—unlike the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who was perhaps not terribly inclined to go down to the west country—and see for herself what Westminster city council is doing on the ground to ensure that the unlicensed hazard of pedicabs is kept to an absolute minimum.

I hope the Minister will do two things in responding to this debate, both of which would make a huge difference to residents, businesses, visitors and, importantly, tourists, who will be flooding into central London in the weeks and months ahead as summer arrives. I should like her to undertake that she will do everything that she can to ensure that a licensing regime is introduced for pedicabs as soon as possible. I should also like her to impress upon TFL the importance of its current work to introduce a licensing regime and to include the detail that passengers and other road users are currently subject to far too many risks every night.

Furthermore, I would be grateful if the Minister were to undertake that the Government will introduce primary legislation that will allow local authorities to use their traffic enforcement powers against pedicabs, just as they do against other vehicles. The Department for Transport has previously assured us that primary legislation already exists to bring pedicabs into line with other
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vehicles in law. However, the search for that legislation has proved fruitless and local authorities’ hands have remained tied.

In the past, the Department for Transport has suggested that once the licensing regime was in place, local authorities could issue traffic management orders to enforce the rules on pedicabs. That is not really a workable solution, because a TMO to ban pedicabs from using the pavement, for example, would mean Westminster city council being obliged to erect large signs all over the city of Westminster, as it is required to do when enforcing such a TMO. That would lead to a bureaucratic nightmare and would not be a solution to the problem of pedicabs, given the relatively small locality in which it exists.

It would not be overstating the case to say that we are not far off experiencing our first fatality involving pedicabs. I hope that the Department for Transport will bear that in mind as it prepares any new legislation. With the Olympics approaching, we cannot allow this dangerous situation to continue. We cannot seek to manage London’s transport network with so little knowledge about the vehicles on our roads, not least because of the problems with gridlock.

Let me summarise the situation as it is. Westminster city council wants to improve the experience of going out in the west end. That is understandable and in all our interests, given the importance of tourism as a major driver of imports and central London’s role in that regard, which cannot be overstated. Safe transport is a major part of that offer. London’s increasing numbers of unlicensed pedicabs represent a threat to the safety of passengers and the reputation of London. It is extremely difficult for traffic authorities in London to enforce parking and moving vehicle traffic rules against contraventions by pedicabs, given the current lack of any registration and licensing regime, and the absence of powers to allow highways authorities to issue fines to drivers.

TFL intends to introduce a full licensing regime for pedicabs following its consultation process, and I welcome that co-operation going forward. However, new legislative provisions are needed to allow the current enforcement regimes for parking and moving traffic contraventions to include pedicabs, too. Those provisions will be required to enable the proper regulation of pedicabs as they conduct their business, and to ensure that they are subject to the same safety regulations that apply to other road users.

Amendments were tabled to the Road Safety Act 2006 during its passage in the previous Session, and supported my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott). They were resisted by the Department for Transport, on the grounds that alternative legislative routes might be available. Similar objections were made to my amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill. However, I hope that the Minister will find the opportunity in the very near future to improve the safety of pedicabs, and therefore to enhance and protect the reputation of the west end as a showcase for London.

1.16 pm

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