Taxis and private hire vehicles: the road to reform - Transport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 165-198)


15 MARCH 2011

Q165   Chair: Good morning. Could I ask you, please, to identify yourselves with your name and organisation? This is for our records. I will start at the end here. John Moorhouse: My name is John Moorhouse. I am Company Secretary of TravelWatch NorthWest. Paul Fawcett: I am Paul Fawcett. I am the Research Assistant at TravelWatch NorthWest. Kris Beuret: I am Kris Beuret. I am the Chair of the National Association of Taxi Users, a consumer group recently established. John Austin: I am John Austin, the Vice Chair of the National Association of Taxi Users.

Q166   Chair: I would like to start off by asking the National Association of Taxi Users if you could tell us how many users you represent and how you get your information. Kris Beuret: We recently launched ourselves at a conference only in December last year and we did that at the instigation, really, of a lot of organisations. I myself was a member of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which is now no longer working. A lot of disability organisations wanted to do something for consumers. Also, a lot of women's groups, and generally the work we have done over the many years, have flagged up the need for a consumer group to represent taxi users. We did go to Passenger Focus. They had recently taken on buses as well as trains. They felt that that was enough for the moment, but they do support this initiative. We would hope that one day that would merge with Passenger Focus, but meanwhile we are here because we feel there is an urgent need to represent the needs of taxi users.

Q167   Chair: How many users would you say you represent? How do people know that you exist and how to approach you? Kris Beuret: We have only recently launched the web page last month. We are getting more and more people using the web page and we are in the process of getting various people to amalgamate with us, including the National Association of Licensing Officers, who we hope will support us.

Q168   Chair: You have been here during the discussions this morning and we have heard a lot of issues about cross-border hire. What are your views on that? Do you think there is a problem with private hire based in one area going into another and waiting for business before coming back? Kris Beuret: What we know from our members is that there is massive confusion about taxis. Local authorities spend a lot of time printing pamphlets, trying to explain to people about all these boundary issues, about the difference between private hire and hackneys and so on. Long term, we would advocate a national licensing system which we think would overcome a lot of these problems, not necessarily enforced nationally, but certainly set standards nationally.

Q169   Chair: How would it be enforced then? Kris Beuret: It is already enforced, but the confusion is that—

Q170   Chair: How would a national system be enforced? Kris Beuret: It would be enforced locally. John Austin: It would be enforced locally by, we suggest, either local districts or counties and unitaries. But we believe it should be planned on a regional or a county basis rather than being looked at purely at the district level.

Q171   Chair: TravelWatch NorthWest, what are your views on the cross-border hire issues you have heard us discussing? John Moorhouse: I think we would very much agree with our colleagues here. We think the aim should be to go towards national licensing to overcome these cross-boundary problems. It may be that an initial stage may be wider licensing areas than you have at the moment. I know you will still have boundary situations, but at least you will be minimising those. You would have fewer of them than you have at the moment. I think a national system would enable local enforcement, and you would then have a position where, because the taxi would have a national licence, the enforcement would simply be of any taxi in that particular area at that time.

Q172   Chair: How would consumers benefit from a national system that didn't look at local issues? Kris Beuret: It would be certainty about what standards to accept. At the moment, if people try and hail a taxi, say, in Manchester, if they are behaving legally, they have to say, if they are a private hire for another area, "Sorry, we can't pick you up." People don't understand why that is. They are totally baffled by it. John Moorhouse: There is an issue about the perception of taxis. Most people who use taxis don't really understand the difference between private hire and hackney. They are, as Kris has said, very under­represented. There is certainly an issue about the need for more consumer representation. There is the need for the taxi passengers to be aware of how they can take an issue forward if they need to do so, because at the moment I don't think that is the case.

Q173   Paul Maynard: Would you agree that the debate over the past two decades regarding taxi licensing and taxi legislation has been driven entirely by the taxi industry itself rather than by those who actually use taxis? Would that be a fair characterisation? Kris Beuret: That is why we have set ourselves up. John Austin: We believe that the needs of taxi users have not been fully taken into account. We also believe that the taxi and private hire industry has not been taken account of as much as it should be in local transport plans and therefore it has not been considered as much as it should be as part of a public transport system.

Q174   Paul Maynard: Do you believe that public policy making has been driven by that same focus on taxi providers rather than taxi users? Kris Beuret: Certainly, the work we have done in local authorities shows that you often go to committees and in the public gallery there is the trade. Obviously, councillors do their best to represent consumers and so does NALEO, the professional organisation, but, nevertheless, it is the consumer voice that is frequently absent. Through my company I have done a lot of surveys which particularly have represented the views of disabled people. They very much explain experiences of discrimination; their voice is frequently not heard. That is why the National Association of Taxi Users is particularly anxious to involve disabled people, who are themselves a market for taxis.

Q175   Paul Maynard: I actually wanted to specifically address the issue of disabled passengers because— Paul Fawcett: Can I just come in there and make the observation that there is a lot of confusion about the difference between private hire and hackney carriages? Hackney carriages are very often limited in numbers and this has been a brake on the introduction of taxi buses—a very big brake, really—because, until Mr Moorhouse and I appeared before this Committee 10 years ago, the private hire fraternity were not able to run taxi buses. We made that point very strongly, and we are glad to see that in the Local Transport Act 2008 it was taken up. So it is now possible for both to operate as taxi buses. Kris Beuret: We feel that, if a national standard were to develop, it would be very good to have a national standard of training for taxi drivers, because, as you heard earlier, one of the problems is that these taxi drivers have to do local tests and, like a bus driver, they can't go from one area of the country to another and just—

Q176   Chair: What about the local knowledge? Are you discounting that? John Austin: We believe that local knowledge is important, but its importance will diminish over time with new technology. We live in a fast-increasing changing age and local knowledge will become much less important in the next five or six years, I would have thought.

Q177   Mr Leech: I asked the previous panel whether they thought that a national scheme would drive up licence standards or reduce them to the lowest common denominator. As users, do you think it would improve standards or make them worse? Kris Beuret: National standards would have to be set, and we would certainly hope that it would improve, particularly, the lowest common denominator, of which there are many pretty awful examples.

Q178   Mr Leech: My understanding from speaking to a couple of licensing authorities who have higher standards is that they would argue that they set higher standards than what would be considered to be the norm. Is there not a danger that the standards would actually be too low if we have national standards? John Moorhouse: I think you would have to have a national view of that, wouldn't you?

Q179   Chair: If you are advocating a different system, you have to have reason—

Kris Beuret: What I thought—

Chair: Just a moment. We are speaking to Mr Moorhouse. You would have to have reason to believe that it would be better, not just go in on a hope, wouldn't you? If you are advocating a change, you need to have grounds to think it will improve things. John Moorhouse: Absolutely. I am not sure about the mechanics of how it would come about, but certainly, if you are going to introduce national licensing, then to go along with that you would have to have proper national standards and that would have to be laid down to apply everywhere. I am sure that then, however it was done, you would look at what are the best standards and best practice that are happening now in each local area and take that as your benchmark. I must admit I wouldn't want to get into the mechanics of it.

Q180   Mr Leech: Moving on from that then, you were advocating national standards but you were advocating local enforcement. Is there a danger that, if you leave it to local enforcement, the actual enforcement of the standards would be dictated by a number of factors relating to how locally they were enforced? John Austin: I think you would need to have national standards of the enforcement levels, to be honest, so that they would be done locally but they would be to a national standard. One area in which standards might well be increased by a national system is in the standards of drivers. I think it would assist in rooting out ones that get through perhaps poorer quality assessment systems in some existing licensing authorities.

Q181   Mr Leech: Is there a danger that some local authorities will end up spending exorbitant amounts of money on enforcing those national standards? For instance, coming back to my example of Manchester, Trafford and Stockport, I would imagine, if there was national licensing, we would end up having Manchester having to do an awful lot of the enforcement for the whole of Greater Manchester as lots of private hire vehicles were coming into the centre of Manchester all the time. John Moorhouse: Presumably they should be enforcing those standards now.

Q182   Mr Leech: So Stockport would be responsible for Stockport private hire cabs in Manchester. John Moorhouse: I would see that, in a future scenario, the enforcement will be done for all taxis operating within that area by the appropriate local authority. If you had a national licensing system, then it wouldn't be for individual local authorities. It would be for the local authority where the vehicles are operating. Again, it would be a question of how you would do that. At the moment you can't do that. If you have a taxi operating in Manchester which is licensed outside Manchester, you can't enforce standards. I think I am right in saying that.

Q183   Chair: How would a national standard deal with a situation where someone got in a taxi somewhere and said, "I want to go to that white building that is somewhere around the city centre"? A local driver might well know what they are talking about. If you had something with national standards, where nobody needed to have any particular local knowledge, they could not deal with that, could they? Sat-nav wouldn't tell them that. John Moorhouse: That is a good point, but in practice you would find that most people would predominantly operate in their local area, and I think it would be the exception. If an operation was outside that area, then you would expect them to give the right kind of service and people operating those cars would have to have that knowledge.

Q184   Iain Stewart: I would like to pick up a point that was made by the RMT representatives in the previous panel, and that is the difference between licensed cabs and private hire vehicles in terms of provision for disabled users. From your perspective, in the private hire market, is there a sufficient supply of vehicles that can cater for the needs of disabled passengers or is there a shortfall? Paul Fawcett: This is a problem that we have come across when discussing the provision of taxi buses, because they will hold a special restrictive PSV operator's licence issued by the Traffic Commissioner, not by a local authority or a district authority, and therefore national standards would apply. Very, very few taxis would be able to operate as a taxi bus after 2012, because all PSVs would have to be DDA compliant. It is a real problem when you have more than one licensing authority and more than one enforcement authority. They contradict each other to an alarming extent, really. Kris Beuret: Can I just say something about the access? The majority of disabled people do not need a wheelchair accessible taxi. There are different needs for different vehicle designs for disabled people. I really do believe that the market is growing to take care and provide that range of provision. We did some work recently in Amber Valley, which has a vast rural hinterland, and we found that, gradually evolving, the market is providing larger vehicles, which sometimes are good for taxi work with people with lots of luggage, sometimes for nightclubs for groups of young people, and at other times for wheelchair access and other things. If consumers could understand the taxi system better and had more power, and if the taxi system worked more smartly—loads of them aren't on radio circuits even—and they stopped sitting in ranks hoping for a fare outside Birmingham station, and being happy to sit there for hours, we think that it would be a very good industry to play its part in the public transport mix.

Q185   Chair: What about the consumer that comes off a train and looks for a taxi? Are you seriously saying that all the systems should be based on technology and the basic thing of somebody coming off a train looking for a taxi should be a very difficult situation? Kris Beuret: There will always be taxis at stations, because they are needed. What we are saying is the market would be more informed about where else to go.

Q186   Kwasi Kwarteng: Forgive me, a lot of this debate seems mediaeval to me. I remember reading in the history books about when they had 350 different currencies in Germany and all that sort of thing, and a lot of this talk reminds me of that. I appreciate that you represent consumers and you feel that there should be national standards. Are there a significant number of people in your body who are arguing the opposite of having national standards, who are saying, "No, we want to keep the current system as it is, with lots of different local authorities exercising jurisdiction"? Are there a significant number of people that you represent who are making that argument? Kris Beuret: No. I have to say we are still building up our base, but no. Everybody sees this as a sensible way forward.

Q187   Kwasi Kwarteng: Is this an argument that you have heard among consumers?

Chair: When you say "everybody", who do you mean? You are building up your base. You have not been in existence very long. Are these your opinions?

Kwasi Kwarteng: I am asking about consumers, with respect, Chair.

Chair: Yes, but I think these are your opinions, not the consumers' views. Kris Beuret: We have published a manifesto on the web page and we are getting all sorts of comments back. The people who identify themselves as consumers are not disagreeing with this.

Q188   Paul Maynard: Can I return to the issue of disabled passengers once again? Would you consider me to be mistaken in my belief that licensed hackney cabs are better providers for the disabled than private hire vehicles? An argument that often gets cited to me is that, because of the extra space and size of a licensed hackney cab, a typical black cab, and because of the supposed extra training of the licensed cab driver, they are somehow better placed to provide for that sector of the market. Is that, in your view representing consumers, a correct argument to cite? Kris Beuret: What I think, and there is quite a lot of evidence for this, is that it varies. You can't generalise and say hackneys are better than private hire. Disabled people really do build up trade for an operator, either private hire or hackney, who take care of them and who understand how to treat them. There are others who are very bad at understanding. That is back to training as well. But I don't think you can generalise.

Q189   Paul Maynard: Would you, therefore, agree or disagree that any moves towards national licensing, deregulation or a gradual disintegration of the boundaries between licensed hackney cabs and private hire vehicles—any of that—would actually put at risk disabled passengers' access to adequate taxi services? Kris Beuret: We think it would improve.

Paul Maynard: You think it would improve.

Q190   Chair: Mr Fawcett, do you have any views on that? Paul Fawcett: I am coming to it from the consumer's point of view, who is looking for a taxi bus where a registered local service has been withdrawn. There is a market that will emerge for more consumer­friendly vehicles to carry more than just four passengers. The taxi bus regulations relate to vehicles with eight or less passenger seats. The Local Transport Act 2008 did make provision for these vehicles to be operated by community transport associations as well. So I think a market will emerge for the slightly bigger MPV, if you like, in the private hire vehicle world.

Q191   Paul Maynard: How many taxi buses operate at the moment in the north­west, roughly? Paul Fawcett: One, I think.

Q192   Paul Maynard: Which is? Paul Fawcett: I have identified less than 10 in the whole country. It is very difficult to persuade the taxi trade to take the idea of carrying passengers with separate fares seriously.

Q193   Paul Maynard: Which is the one in the north-west? Paul Fawcett: It was Allerdale. Whether it is still running or not I am not sure.

Q194   Paul Maynard: So it has not been a great success, you would suggest? Paul Fawcett: The problem there was that they had a private hire vehicle licence, and the taxi licensing authority had to amend that licence to make it a special restrictive hackney licence where they could operate as a taxi bus but they could not go on ranks and they could not ply for hire. Now the Act has swept that away, but they haven't taken advantage of it.

Q195   Paul Maynard: Is there anything more that the Government could do to encourage the greater use of taxi buses or their further introduction? Paul Fawcett: They should have more prominence in local transport plans. Also, local transport authorities should encourage private hire and hackney operators, although the distinction is merging now as we have seen, to tender for taxi bus operations where the main operations have been withdrawn or deregistered.

Q196   Chair: Would you like to see taxis and private hire figure more prominently in local transport?

Paul Fawcett: Yes. They are public transport. John Austin: The situation at the moment is highly variable. We found a number of LTPs which regard taxis and private hire as part of the public transport system and to be planned and taken account of accordingly; others do not. We do think that, with large cuts in public expenditure and the amount available for subsidising bus services, there is going to be a real need for taxi buses in rural areas and perhaps some suburbs, where they might work better than buses on main corridors. The Commission for Integrated Transport had a major report, I think three or four years ago, about recommending widespread facilitation of taxi buses in England. Kris Beuret: One of the problems at the moment is that so much taxi thinking is done at the district level and most transport planning at the next tier up. So you often find complete disregard of taxis as the essential cement often of the public transport system.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming and answering our questions. Thank you.

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Prepared 19 July 2011