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6 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): May I say first how I much appreciated the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who could not be here today? I thought that his apology was most courteous. May I say, too, how nice it is to see the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) sitting in his place? I am more than hopeful that with either of those distinguished parliamentarians I will be kicking at an open door.

Let me briefly explain the need for the debate. The need is quite apparent, because violent crime against taxi drivers is increasing rather quickly. My seeking this debate was also partly motivated by a horrific case, to which I shall return, in which the taxi driver son-in-law of a constituent of mine was murdered.

Violent attacks against taxi drivers are of equal concern in all constituencies. That is why I am hopeful of kicking at an open door. The industry is sizeable and employs 340,000 people, including 71,500 hackney cab drivers and more than 250,000 private hire drivers, who are obviously licensed through the licence system. In 2003, the last year for which we have any sensible figures, 650 million taxi journeys were made and £3 billion was spent on fares.

The trade is facing sizeable issues. I do not want to go into those now; instead, I want to stay with the issue of violence against drivers. The reasons why violence occurs are clear. First, taxi drivers are alone with their customers in their cabs and are therefore highly vulnerable. Secondly, drivers operate at the front line and deal with some emotionally charged and volatile situations. Thirdly, in city and town centres, taxis are the only form of public transport available at antisocial hours. Violence is commonplace on the night shift and has worsened since the introduction of 24-hour drinking. Indeed, taxi drivers’ hours are stretched, too, so they are more tired at the most vulnerable times. On average, they worked 12 to 14 hours a day before the extension of many city and town centre pub hours. I am told by Bryan Roland, the editor of Private Hire and Taxi Monthly, that that has now been extended to between 14 and 18 hours. Taxi drivers are therefore most vulnerable when they are most tired.

Let us consider the proof of attacks on taxi drivers. As I have said, there has been a rise in attacks and murders throughout the country, involving guns, knives, syringes, ropes, bottles and bricks, as well as the traditional weapons of the fist and the foot. The consequences of those attacks are physical injury, depression, death and a massive hit on drivers’ families, which must not be forgotten.

In 2007, there were 13 murders and 60 serious assaults, as well as more than 1,000 other assaults, and those are just the reported ones. As we all know, many lesser incidents tend not to be reported to the police. There have been 49 murders within the private hire industry over a 15-year period. This year, 120 serious assaults have already been committed. That is double the number of last year, and we are only in May. Incidents of verbal
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and racist abuse stretch to many thousands. Although one third of taxi drivers are from ethnic minorities, two thirds of those murdered were from that sector of our community. That is of serious concern. The Kapila report in 2004 into racist incidents involving Bury’s taxi and private hire drivers highlighted some of the problems. Drivers did not feel supported when they were racially abused; the police were inconsistent in dealing with taxi drivers; and police response times were 40 to 60 minutes. That is a very long time to wait when there has been a serious, violent incident.

The estimated cost to the nation of investigating the 49 murders, which constitute but a small part of the serious incidents in this area, was £76 million. The cost of each investigation of violence against a person was £3,036. If we add to that the cost of social security and of loss of earnings to the victims, the total cost to the country to date is about £168 million. I know that the Minister would love to have £168 million to pursue her work in her Department. It is a great deal of money.

Let me give examples of people who have suffered personal injury in recent years. My friend, John Kelly, who is the secretary of the Northampton Hackney Cab Association, was the victim of a serious assault with a hammer in 1997, after which he was hospitalised for four days. That incident caused him to leave the trade for three years, and his spine has been permanently damaged. I pay tribute to him for helping to motivate me to secure this debate. The son-in-law of another of my constituents, Ron Corbett, whom I mentioned in my opening remarks, was murdered during his duties as a taxi driver. He was so struck by that incident that he created Safe Shield, to try to protect other drivers. He, too, helped to motivate me to secure the debate. I hope that he will not mind my paying that tribute to him.

There have been other incidents. In May 2007, Gian Chand Bajar, aged 70, was murdered in Gravesend, Kent. Colin Winstone, aged 44, who was a father of two, was stabbed in Bristol in 2005. Mohammed Jamil was stabbed in the face, in west Yorkshire, over a £3.50 fare. Mahmood Ahmed was murdered in Keighley two weeks after the birth of his child. Taxi drivers in west Yorkshire staged a seven-hour strike in 2006 after the murder of Mohammad Parvaiz in Golcar. I could give more examples. Those incidents are well known, and I have cited just a few to highlight the importance of the issue.

Sadly, there has been a lack of parliamentary activity on this issue, although I realise that a body has been set up to look into the matter, and we await its report. In 2005, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) asked about this issue and was told:

So, there is a history of concern about the problem, although I am pleased to admit that things are better now.

In April 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) asked the Department for Transport how much it had spent on reducing crime against taxi drivers. He was told:

He was, however, told of a research project to be completed by the end of 2007.

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I, too, wrote to the Department for Transport about this issue last year, and was told that the Government were funding a project into the personal security of private hire vehicle drivers and taxi drivers. My office rang the Department to get a copy of that report, which was due to be finalised at the end of last year. I was told that the project had overrun, but was completed, although no publication date for the report had been set. I was told that an executive summary was available, but the truth of the matter is that I was passed from civil servant to civil servant, to the present Minister and finally to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton). It was a ministerial wild goose chase, you might well think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but sadly it did not have a happy ending. I was told no, I was not allowed a copy of executive summary, which I found rather odd, given my sustained interest in this matter.

It is difficult to know the Government’s current position, but I am hopeful that the Minister will be able to enlighten us on the basis of the executive copy of the report, which I am sure she will have. The word on the street, however, is that the report does not carry with it the significance that was hoped for by Members who sat on the body that commissioned the report.

I am aware that local projects are under way and that taxi marshals, sponsored by the police, community groups and local authorities, are operating at some taxi ranks. That is most welcome. They are mainly intended to reduce drunken violence, but have also gone some way to offering protection against attacks at taxi ranks, although whether it has had a massive effect on assaults against drivers is not clear. Those projects on their own are simply not enough; they need greater support from the Government.

Taxi drivers are exchanging information about troublesome areas and troublesome passengers, which is welcome, and they are making a greater commitment to prosecute. Too often, people do not want to get mixed up in the red tape of prosecution, but they should be encouraged to do so in this particular area. Eastbourne provides a good example of such a scheme.

CCTV is a vital part of the defence process and is becoming more clearly accepted as such. A number of trials are going on throughout the country, including one in Rugby this year. Let me provide an example of the impact that CCTV can have. In Sheffield a year ago last Christmas, a 500-strong taxi firm suffered 400 incidents of violence and abuse between December and the new year—a frightening number of incidents for a single-town or single-city taxi firm. The firm was so worried that it paid for in-car cameras that recorded in an encrypted fashion. This year, only six such problems occurred—a massive result, showing that we need to spread round more information about what happened.

I said that the cameras were encrypted, which is important, because we Members all have friends who might pay more than particular attention to their partners in taxi cabs. The last thing that we would want is for those friends to be placed in an embarrassing position. It is worth making the point that the encryption can be opened only by police or the magistrates court when an incident has been reported, so it cannot be used to provide the sort of television programmes provided by the police that we see from time to time.

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There are problems, however. The units cost between £700 and £1,000 a car, and we know that most taxi drivers are self-employed and do not have that sort of capital. I am told that the cost of production is only £80 and that the rest is maintenance and back-up. Perhaps the Government could look further into that, given that it has proved to be such a massive aid.

I could go on. The question of shields is relevant to the matter. On Monday this week, the professional drivers branch of the GMB union organised a rally, which was attended by thousands of drivers, who spoke to Members of Parliament. They asked for Government incentives for safety measures through the local licensing authorities; for CCTV to be fitted into vehicles; for proper training to be given to drivers, such as nationally recognised NVQs that are portable between areas; for a more sensible sentencing regime; and for the police to record attacks on taxi and private hire drivers as a separate category. I seek similar commitment from the Government today, as well as a publication date for their research project, which would be useful.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I hope that I have made the case for a more serious and unified programme of action. I have the feeling that the problem is not being properly recognised by Government, but I hope to hear differently this evening. Taxi drivers make a massive contribution to public transport in this country, usually in those hours when most sensible citizens have taken to their bed. They and their families collectively pay a sizeable price to make that contribution. We owe them more protection, help, encouragement and training, and greater understanding of their plight. I hope that the Minister can respond to me with serious encouragement in all those areas.

6.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) on securing this debate on an important matter, not only for people employed as taxi and private hire vehicle drivers, but for all of us who are, as he clearly indicated, concerned with the safety of transport workers. Obviously, this is to a certain extent a health and safety at work issue. The Department for Work and Pensions takes a keen interest in the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, although, as he pointed out, the Department for Transport leads on these matters within Government.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, many Members of Parliament have shown a keen interest in this matter, and several spoke at a GMB union rally on Monday to support its campaign to draw attention to the serious safety issues affecting drivers. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he paid to his constituents who have suffered violence as taxi drivers, or whose relatives have suffered such violence. As he said, they encouraged him to seek the debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Bryan Roland, who, he might be interested to know, was part of the Department for Transport’s research study group. I place on record our thanks to him and his colleagues for their help in formulating the report.

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The taxi and private hire trades provide an invaluable means of transport for thousands of individuals. Astonishingly, millions of journeys are made every year by taxi. Taxis might be used by an older person in an isolated village making their weekly shop in a market town, a commuter returning home after arriving at a railway station late at night, or night clubbers wanting a safe ride home. Rather like the hon. Gentleman, I have used taxis in nearly all those situations, although not in the first one—yet.

Unfortunately, as with too many people who serve the public, taxi and private hire drivers are too often undervalued by the very people they serve. That can lead merely to rather casual dismissive behaviour by people, who treat drivers as almost invisible. Unfortunately —and far too often, as the hon. Gentleman indicated—it can lead to something worse. The reports that we have seen in the past few days, and which appear month after month in the trade press, about attacks on drivers, are far too depressingly familiar. Each report means that a driver and his or her family will have been deeply affected, sometimes in a most traumatic way, particularly in case of severe violence and death.

The level of violence reported against private hire and taxi drivers is deeply worrying, and we share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. It goes without saying that verbal and physical assaults on drivers are totally unacceptable. Drivers have every right to work in a safe environment. The Government take very seriously any assault on front-line transport staff, and that is just as true for taxi drivers as it is for train and bus drivers, or other any transport worker going about their job. That is why we very much welcome the recent Sentencing Guidelines Council advice that assaults on transport workers, among others, cause harm to the individual and to the wider community. The council’s view is that the sentence handed down by the courts should reflect that point.

The Government recognise the concerns of drivers about their safety, and we are taking action to help to address those concerns. That is why, for the first time, we have undertaken national research to investigate the personal security problems that most concern and affect taxi and private hire drivers, with the help of trade associations, trade unions and drivers themselves. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about the report, and I can advise him that it will be published shortly, linking in to the analysis and research that has been done. The research has been received by the Department for Transport, but there still needs to be some consultation with stakeholders, taxi drivers and trade unions. Any guidelines that result from this must have credibility with the industry. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s frustration about what he feels is an inordinate delay, but we think this process is important, so anything that comes out of the research must be well proofed with the taxi drivers and private hire industry.

It is increasingly clear that taxi drivers have to put up with a great deal while carrying out their jobs, including verbal and physical abuse, which many drivers feel is due to a lack of respect. There is significant under-reporting of incidents to the police, particularly in relation to bilking. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that, but he will know that bilking is what happens when a passenger runs off without paying. Incidents are rarely reported to the police, yet we know that to be one of the
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most common problems for today’s drivers. Verbal abuse is a common occurrence, not only from passengers but from other road users and pedestrians. Unfortunately, too often the verbal abuse of minority ethnic drivers is also racist. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman highlighted that. As he said, the statistics for violence against drivers from the black and minority ethnic community are significantly higher than for the other drivers out there on the road. It is a sad fact of life that many drivers are almost resigned to seeing abuse as “part of the job”. That should definitely not be the case.

Police data do not automatically identify a victim of violent incidents or robbery as a taxi or private hire driver. That means that we do not have national data on the number of such incidents. However, local and regional data are available to give us a partial understanding of the regularity of such incidents. For example, an analysis of three years of recorded crime data on offences against drivers in west Yorkshire shows that there are, on average, 10 to 20 assaults a month—quite a figure. Many, but not all, violent incidents are alcohol-related and occur at night. Some of the attacks are premeditated and planned.

The most serious incidents are already reported to the police, but I would, through this debate, encourage all those in the taxi and private hire trades to report all other incidents to the local police and appropriate local community safety forums. There are examples of initiatives to encourage such reporting, including of racially motivated and hate crime, to make the reporting procedure easy and accessible, and minimise its length. By building up a more accurate picture, the authorities will be able to monitor the incidents being experienced by the trade. I hope that local police, licensing authorities and others will be able to target their responses appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned in-vehicle CCTV and driver shields. Those can have a useful role to play in driver security, and they are currently in use in a number of vehicles. Local authorities can choose to fund in-vehicle CCTV as part of their wider work in
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protecting workers and members of the public, particularly through community safety partnership funding.

Following on from the results of our research, as I said earlier, we will publish guidance to drivers on how to stay safe later this year, and we will also try to raise trade and police awareness of the legal position on bilking. In addition, we will be working to raise awareness among crime and disorder reduction partnerships about the need to engage with the trade to address crime and disorder affecting transport operators, and about the benefit to be derived from that.

The Department’s best practice guidance urged licensing authorities to look sympathetically on, and actively to encourage, the installation of security features. We are now embarking on a revision of the guidance, and will consult on that revision before publication. Our consultation will, of course, include representatives from the taxi and private hire vehicle trade, and we certainly welcome their input.

It is essential that the trade, licensing authorities and other local partners work together on this issue. Taxi and private hire drivers are often seen as the “eyes and ears” of the local community. If we value them as such, they should be treated with respect, and given appropriate help so that they can carry out their valuable duties in safety.

We are committed to improving the personal security of transport staff, including taxi and private hire drivers. Assaults on taxi drivers are totally unacceptable, and as I said earlier, taxi drivers have the right to work in a safe environment. It is important to consider how we maintain their safety, and the Department for Transport looks forward to further work with the trade, the police and the Home Office on this important issue. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Northampton, South for raising this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Six o’clock.

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