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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 199-221)


15 MARCH 2011

Q197   Chair: Good morning and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. I think, Minister, this is your first appearance in front of us. Norman Baker: It is indeed.

Q198   Chair: We are pleased that you are here today and we are pleased that you are here to discuss taxis. Perhaps I can start off by asking you how high up your agenda are issues to do with taxis? Norman Baker: Very high up this morning.

Chair: I am glad to hear that. Norman Baker: It is an important part of my portfolio, and I recognise that there are significant issues to do with, not least of all, the issues which I think you want to explore this morning. Perhaps to pre­empt one of your questions, when I came into post and had a look at the legislation, it did seem to me to be slightly archaic. Obviously, the legislation in relation to taxis and private hire vehicles has been around now for many years, going back to Victorian times and the 1847 Town Police Clauses Act. Our Victorian forebears managed to leave us with a very good legacy, but, a bit like the Victorian sewers, now 150 to 160 years on, it perhaps needs a little bit of attention.

Q199   Chair: You have told us that you are looking at reviewing taxi legislation. Could you tell us something about the areas you are considering and when any such legislation is likely to be brought forward? Norman Baker: I have asked the Law Commission in fact whether they would consider this as one of their project areas to look at, which is, hopefully, an interesting and successful way of dealing with this matter, because it is quite complicated. You have four different pieces of legislation. You have one relating to taxis outside London and one in London. You then have private hire vehicles outside London and in London. So the legislation is quite complicated. It has been built on, higgledy­piggledy, over the years. Obviously, it is a largely devolved matter in terms of licensing functions, and therefore the ability to predict whether or not a particular problem which arises can be solved by the legislation in place is uncertain. That is why there is a need to look at this. Obviously, we want the Law Commission to accept the suggestion I put to them that this is a good area for a case study and they should come back with an idea of what we might sensibly do. I am also genuinely interested in what the Committee has to say on this matter, and I am actually very pleased that you are looking at this area, because I think it is an area where, in the Department, I certainly have an open mind on what the answers are. It is very useful that you have taken evidence from a wide range of people and will come up with a report which I will look at very carefully. If the Law Commission doesn't in due course want to take that forward, then obviously we will have a look at what you said and see how that fits into a possible legislative framework.

Q200   Chair: What is the timing likely to be? Is this open-ended when you have referred this to them? Norman Baker: We don't have a definite date by which we have asked them to respond, but I would expect them to respond reasonably speedily as to whether they want to undertake such a piece of work or not. If they do, I would imagine it would take 12 to 18 months to complete.

Q201   Chair: Could you give us an idea of the areas that you are looking at? Some of the areas that have been brought to us are issues to do with national and local schemes, cross-border hire issues and enforcement issues. Are those the areas that you are looking at? Norman Baker: Yes, loosely. I don't come with any preconceptions except to say that I do accept that the arrangements are quite varied across the country and the legislation is quite archaic. There will be one or two recent judgments, of which you may be aware, which have in a sense altered the balance of what the Department previously thought was the case. There is the Stockton judgment in particular, obviously, but there is also the district auditor's involvement at Guildford. So there are one or two issues where we have to look afresh at where we are.

Q202   Chair: When the Law Commission do come forward with some ideas, would those be discussed with the trade and members of the public? Would there be an opportunity for that? Norman Baker: Yes. As I say, we are looking to go forward on a proper consultative basis, so if the Law Commission gets to that stage, I would want them to make their thoughts known to those who have an active interest in the trade itself, perhaps also to the consumer interest, to whom you have been speaking this morning, and also to yourselves, obviously.

Q203   Kwasi Kwarteng: To what extent do you think what has happened in London could be used as a model for the rest of the country? Do you have a view on that? Norman Baker: There is an issue in London about the ability to subcontract. In other words, and I don't know if you are familiar with this, if someone who is a regular person with whom a London private hire company will deal arrives at Manchester, there is an issue about this ability to subcontract and have a Manchester organisation deal with that. There is also an issue about using other firms outside if, for example, your vehicle breaks down. The London legislation allows that sort of arrangement to take place; it does work in reverse. So there is a gap in the legislation, in my view, in that particular regard. It is also the case that the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, I think it is, is just generally more modern than the 1976 Act, which applies to the rest of England. The enforcement issue—the Guildford issue, Chair, that I referred to a moment ago—was a district auditor discovering that the enforcement provisions in the 1976 Act relate to vehicles but therefore not to drivers and operators, whereas the London legislation is not deficient in the same way. There are elements of the London legislation—

Q204   Kwasi Kwarteng: But, broadly, do you think the 1998 Act with respect to London has worked well? Norman Baker: Yes, broadly speaking, although I must say in my portfolio I don't cover London. That is Theresa Villiers. But, broadly, I think so.

Kwasi Kwarteng: You would have a view on that. Norman Baker: Yes.

Q205   Mr Leech: We have heard from a number of witnesses and written evidence in relation to certain private hire firms being licensed in places like Berwick but operating in completely different parts of the country. Do you feel that is a situation that can allow for decent enforcement of private hire regulations? Norman Baker: The issue of enforcement is in fact an important one and it is clearly difficult to believe that Berwick, although Berwick no longer exists in the same way as a district council, can sensibly regulate drivers in Paignton. There is an issue about whether that is a practical way forward or not and whether that leads to a lack of enforcement, as I believe it might do. One of the answers to that may be to have an arrangement whereby there is a much tighter link between the private hire operator, to which the driver has a relationship, and the location of that private hire operator than exists at the moment. As I understand it, a properly licensed Berwick taxi driver can, in terms of pre­bookings, align themselves with a private hire operator in Paignton, Manchester, Birmingham or anywhere else. It may be the case that, if you required a linkage to be established between the private hire operator's district and the licensing district of the taxi driver, then that might solve some of those problems.

Q206   Mr Leech: How could that be done? One of the possible solutions would be to say that, if you become a licensed operator and the licence came from Berwick, you had to work within a certain geographical area of Berwick. But that would not address the issue that we have had from Liverpool whereby we have Delta taxis that are licensed in Sefton but are operating predominantly in Liverpool. Do you see that as an issue that could be resolved, or do you see a big distinction between the Berwick and Paignton model and the Sefton and Liverpool model? Norman Baker: I think they are quite different, because the Berwick­Paignton problem relates to taxi drivers who are licensed as taxi drivers but then using the ability which they have in the legislation to undertake pre­bookings, whereas the Sefton­Liverpool problem, as I understand it, is a matter of private hire vehicles across borders. So there is a different problem. The Berwick issue is an enforcement issue, as I think you rightly drew attention to, which I think would be significantly improved by the linkage which I described that might be introduced. With regard to the Sefton­Liverpool problem, it depends what the problem is that you are seeking to solve. I don't think there is an enforcement issue there. As I understand it, there is actually some good working between the different licensing authorities in Liverpool and Sefton. So it is not an enforcement issue. The issue there relates to other matters in terms of the impact on taxi drivers in Liverpool, which I think Unite feel strongly about, or whether it relates to what might be regarded as—I am not saying this is my view but it has been suggested it might be—unfair competition because, for example, the insurance companies tend to provide insurance at a cheaper rate for drivers and companies based in Sefton than they do in Liverpool. They are the sorts of issues and they are quite different issues from the Berwick­Paignton ones.

Q207   Mr Leech: A number of our witnesses have suggested that a national licensing scheme should be introduced. Do you think there is a danger that this could drive down standards, or would it raise standards across the board? Norman Baker: I suppose the answer to that depends on what the national standards are. But I am not sure that standards are the problem. I have asked officials to look into this, because one of the concerns which initially was expressed to me was that there was a difference in standards which apply to the licensing regime in different areas such that it encouraged people to register themselves or license themselves in areas where they wouldn't otherwise do so. I have not seen much evidence of that, to be honest with you. Yes, there are different standards in terms of, say, the percentage of windows that are tinted and that sort of thing, and yes, Berwick was cheaper in order to secure a licence than it was elsewhere, but I don't think the difference in standards is such as to cause the problem which exists. I spoke to Unite yesterday. They were concerned not so much about the difference in standards but about the insurance issue to which I have just referred. Those sorts of issues, I think, are more pertinent in terms of costs. Am I in favour of national standards? I want to see what you have to say about that as a Committee, but licensing is a local function and I think it would go against the grain of the Government's general drift to take powers away from local councils and standardise them. There may be a case in one or two specific matters for having a national standard. That might be the case where we haven't already, but I certainly think a move towards national standards in a wholesale way would be regressive and would not necessarily drive up standards at all.

Q208   Mr Leech: What about with enforcement, because, from the consumers' point of view, they want to know that standards are being enforced? Is there any evidence that the enforcement of standards is patchy and very different from local authority to local authority?

Norman Baker: There is clearly an issue, coming back to the different problems, between Berwick and Paignton. There may be an issue there because it is unrealistic to expect Berwick to patrol what is happening in Paignton. I don't think there is an issue, as far as I am aware, between Sefton and Liverpool in terms of enforcement. But, ultimately, local authorities are sovereign bodies. They are elected, they have their own accountability and they are responsible for enforcement on that, as well as knowing how many kebab shops there are and what time they shut. There is a whole range of things they are responsible for in licensing terms. Because one local authority may be less efficient at enforcement than another is not a reason to change the arrangements whereby these matters are handled locally.

Q209   Paul Maynard: One of the areas we have been discussing today has been the impact of any proposed changes on the disabled passenger. Do you have any thoughts on how you can not just protect but enhance the accessibility of taxis for disabled people? Norman Baker: Yes. We have been working on that in the Department. As you know, at the moment there are options for local licensing authorities to control the number of taxis which are allowed to operate in a particular area. We have been looking at an idea that we might require those licensing authorities to have a certain percentage of vehicles which are accessible for disabled passengers, as a way of perhaps encouraging authorities to go down that track. Of course, this Government have put in place—and the last Government did as well—mechanisms to ensure that all vehicles are fully accessible by particular dates, whether that is on buses, taxis or rail vehicles, and that continues[4]. Beyond that, and this is an enforcement matter, to pick up Mr Leech's point before, there is an issue as to whether or not we might look at—and I just say "look at" because we haven't made a commitment on this—the issue of making fixed penalty arrangements more common in terms of enforcing some of these matters, which might be more immediate, more effective, and it might save money. You could take an issue such as, for example, a refusal of a driver to carry a guide dog, and subject that to a fixed penalty arrangement. That might be a far more effective way of dealing with that issue than the present arrangement, which would involve a huge kerfuffle through the courts.

Q210   Paul Maynard: We have also received evidence today regarding the concept of a taxi bus, which I gather was introduced under the previous Transport Act, licensed by local traffic commissioners. Currently, as far as we can make out, there is only one in operation, in Allerdale, and we are not even certain that that remains in operation. Does the Government have any plans to encourage greater use of taxi buses, particularly given what is happening in rural areas to bus services? Norman Baker: You may have seen that I tabled a ministerial statement just a few days ago which in fact allocated £10 million to rural local authorities in order to encourage community transport. That sort of concept would come under the community transport field because it is my view that it is unrealistic to expect local authorities to subsidise services using double­decker buses down country lanes, let alone expect a commercial company to provide those services. We need to find a way of avoiding isolation in rural areas. I think the way of avoiding isolation is to be far more inventive about the sorts of vehicles which we have down there. So I think that sort of model, including the old postbus which has operated in some parts of the country, does find a way of preventing isolation in rural areas at an affordable cost. There is also the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which again I launched as part of the White Paper on Local Transport, which has £560 million available to local authorities over a four-year period, which is a significant amount of money, more than the last Government did in the same four-year period. Local authorities are able, under that arrangement—the White Paper—to identify local priorities. If they believe that their local priority is to make sure that there is a connection available for particularly isolated rural areas, then, obviously, that sort of scheme will be eligible for the fund.

Q211   Iain Stewart: Returning to the cross-border hire issue, do you see a potential for using new technology to help guide regulation in this area, with most bookings being done through a computer system and all the sat-nav technology, if a firm was based in one licensing area but the aggregate of its journeys was showing that they were primarily trading in another authority? Do you think the Government would consider using that sort of information as a basis for changing the licensing system? Norman Baker: I am conscious that the advance of technology produces many opportunities for greater information-gathering and, indeed, potentially even more public control than hitherto has existed. Certainly, the existence of sat-nav technology should mean that, where there are not specific tests for taxi drivers carried out by a licensing authority as part of the licensing conditions for the driver, and some licensing authorities do and others do not require that topographical test, then obviously the presence of sat-nav technology potentially means that people are better informed and better able to serve their customers than would otherwise be the case. I do caution that people should not always assume that sat-navs are correct. Apart from the obvious problems of roadworks and sending vehicles down inappropriate roads, there was a case in my constituency where one of my constituents was encouraged to take the next left, duly did so at a level crossing and ended up on a railway line. People should use sat- navs and technology generally with caution. It is not a substitute for common sense.

Q212   Chair: Do you value local knowledge: the kind of knowledge that can't come from a sat-nav, a local driver knowing about local facilities and being able to deal with generalised queries from customers? Norman Baker: Yes, absolutely. I think that is very important. One of the reasons why, in my view, people are happier than they were with the railway system in some regards is because the level of interaction of customer knowledge and approach from staff on the railways has improved in recent years. I have been pushing at the Bus Forum, which I chair every six months, for bus operators to take a similar view in term of what the driver does. Many drivers are very good, of course, but some drivers still see themselves simply as drivers and don't regard it as important to have a customer-facing approach, which I think they need to have, particularly with the one-person operation that we have on buses nearly everywhere these days. I think the same thing applies to taxi drivers. The person who is in the cab or private hire should feel that the person driving the cab or the vehicle is there to help them and is not simply an automaton taking them from A to B. Obviously, local people also have knowledge about shortcuts which may not be obvious from a sat-nav. They may have knowledge about particular roadworks at a particular time. They may say, "You don't want to go there. That restaurant shut last week," or whatever else they may have in their heads. I certainly think there is no substitute for personal knowledge. I recall when I was at school many years ago I was told that the calculator, which was just about starting in those days, was there as a help and not a substitute for mental arithmetic, and, if the calculator said 2 plus 2 was 8.3, you shouldn't necessarily believe it.

Q213   Kwasi Kwarteng: That is a very charming reminiscence. With respect to local knowledge, do you feel that the local knowledge of a borough or an area is something which should be enforced at a local level? I have an anecdote of my own. I am lucky enough to be a Member of Parliament for a single borough and I am amazed at how many places in the borough are unknown to the taxi drivers. Do you think that is an issue that can be addressed by national standards or is it something that you feel should be a purely local matter? Norman Baker: It could be addressed by national standards. Anything can be addressed by national standards. But I am very loth to start imposing on local authorities a particular way of acting. Other Governments in the past, with the best of motives, have identified a problem and thought that the way they should deal with it is to create something from the centre and impose that on local areas. That can work, but it can also provide inflexibility and perverse consequences which aren't always, therefore, welcome. So I am not in favour of trying to impose these things. I would hope that local authorities would recognise the value of having cab drivers or private hire vehicle drivers who actually knew their way around and they ought to factor that in themselves, in the interests of supporting their own communities. Where we come in—which we have done—is to publish the best practice guidance, which is a way of saying to local authorities, "From the centre, this is what we think is good practice, and it would be sensible if you had a look at that and questioned whether or not, if you are not applying it, why not? Is there a good reason not to?" There may be a good reason not to in certain circumstances and that is why national standards are not always appropriate, but this is something that the local authorities, I hope, will look at and they will base their decisions on that.

Q214   Mr Leech: Is there any evidence that local authorities aren't anywhere near that best practice? Norman Baker: I have not seen evidence of local authorities culpably failing in their licensing responsibilities.

Q215   Chair: Do you monitor the best practice guidance? Norman Baker: We monitor it in the sense that we get complaints from members of the public on occasion. We obviously also talk to the trade. My officials regularly talk to the trade and talk to local licensing authorities. We don't monitor it in a formal way, but we, I hope, are able to pick up problems by the myriad contacts that we have.

Q216   Chair: Have you picked up the Berwick situation and the problems there and cross-border hire problems? Norman Baker: Yes. We were aware, before your inquiry started, both of the Berwick­Paignton problem and the Sefton­Liverpool one.

Q217   Chair: Do you think there is a justification for distinguishing between hackneys and private hire? Norman Baker: Yes, I do, because I think they perform different functions, in the sense that, for example, you can flag down a taxi, and obviously you can't flag down a private hire vehicle, or you should not be able to. Secondly, a taxi diver is obliged to take you somewhere within, I think it is 12 miles in London, and within the district in which he is licensed. A private hire vehicle isn't obliged to do that. A taxi has a meter; private hire vehicles don't always have meters. There is an arrangement there and a contract between you and a private hire operator, which doesn't apply in regard to taxis in the same way. Private hire vehicles such as stretch limousines and novelty vehicles of other sorts sometimes have very particular functions which don't apply to taxis. So they perform different functions, and, having thought about this previously, I am content that it is sensible to have two­tier arrangements for the two types of vehicles.

Q218   Chair: It has been suggested to us that, if private hire vehicles go to do work outside the area in which they are licensed, they should have to return to the original area, unless there is a pre­booking, rather than staying in the other area waiting to find out if there is any business. Is that something that would appeal to you? Norman Baker: I will give you my view in a moment. I am not ducking it, but I am genuinely interested if the Committee reaches a view on that matter. My own personal view, for what it is worth, is that we have to decide whether there is a problem with the present arrangements, particularly the Sefton­Liverpool present arrangements. Is it working against the interests of the passenger? That is the first question. I am not sure it is. It may be argued that they don't know what conditions apply exactly or the arrangements for the vehicles are slightly different, and they may be slightly inconvenienced by that. I am not personally convinced by that, although I am open­minded as to whether evidence comes forward to demonstrate that. The issue then comes down to whether it is unfair practices in terms of the taxi trade and whether taxi drivers themselves in one area or, indeed the enforcement authority, are discriminated against unfairly because of the arrangements. I am not convinced of that either, but, again, I am open­minded about it. If you send people back and people are required to return right away, that becomes quite difficult to enforce. I did actually look at the position in Scotland in preparation for coming along to you this morning. In Scotland there is a requirement to return. The advice from my officials who have investigated is that the Scottish authorities sometimes do find it quite difficult to enforce that condition. There is an enforcement problem which is created by the requirement to return back to base. It is also the case that, if you return back to base, there may be a carbon implication, which I am not keen to generate. There is also an issue as to how long someone can wait in an area. Is it legitimate to stop for a sandwich and then get a booking that way? I just think it raises a number of issues which, in practical terms, makes it quite difficult to deal with. There is also the issue of dead mileage. If you end up having to travel long distances, that puts up the cost to the driver because he or she is paying for fuel that otherwise wouldn't be used. I don't think it is quite as simple as just saying they should return. There are all sorts of consequences which arise from it.

Q219   Mr Leech: You have half answered my question in terms of how difficult it might be to enforce a change, if it was decided that change was necessary, but is there any evidence from Scotland that enforcement has become more costly because of this rule? Norman Baker: I don't know whether it is more costly or not. The advice I received from Scotland was simply that the terms they had set were not quite as clear in the legislation as perhaps has been presented to you. They are not quite as pristine and uncontroversial in terms of application as it might have been thought and there are enforcement problems in determining when somebody has offended against that particular condition. I don't know whether it is more costly. I imagine that depends on how much, in terms of resources, they put towards dealing with it and to what extent they turn a blind eye.

Q220   Chair: Do you think that the legislation on London taxis and private hire should be applied nationally? Norman Baker: I think that was the first question to which I responded. The private hire vehicle legislation in London is clearly more up to date and therefore is in a better state— frankly, a better and fit condition—than the private hire legislation from 1976 which applies in the rest of England. There is a case, if you are starting from a blank piece of paper, that you would seek to update the 1976 Act, yes.

Q221   Chair: How would you like to see taxis and private hire incorporated more fully into local transport plans? Is that something which you think is important? Norman Baker: I do think they have a role to play, and certainly the Department—and this comes within my portfolio area—has been looking at the concept of end-to-end journeys. I am very keen that we establish an ability for someone to have confidence that they can use something other than their own private car to get from their front door to the door they want to arrive at somewhere else. What was quite clear from the work we have done in the Department is that people are confident that, if they turn up at a railway station with a ticket and so on, they will get from A to B on the railway. They are much less confident about the last mile or two beyond the railway station to get to their final destination. That leads to some people driving entire distances from, say, here to Norwich and beyond, because they can't deal with the last two miles from Norwich. That is clearly not sensible if we are going to try to encourage a modal shift to rail, which we want to do in terms of reducing carbon, and it is not sensible if we have failed, therefore, to deal with the last two miles of the journey. Taxis have a role to play in that, as do buses and cycle hire facilities. All those things have an answer to help us. One of the things which we are doing, in conjunction with ATOC, is looking to put in every railway station information which gives people confidence when they move towards the exit of the station what happens next. There will be a physical map there in every station which will have details of the area around the station. It will also have information about taxi ranks, bus stops, cycle hire facilities and so on. We are also looking at whether in principle—and this is early stages yet—smart card technology, which I am very keen to see rolled out, might also be accepted at some point by operators of taxis. So we need to see whether or not we can link in, in a way that the public find attractive, different modes of transport to encourage the whole journey experience to be better.

Chair: Thank you very much for answering our questions.

4   Note by witness: This answer suggests that there are central requirements in place to make all taxis fully accessible by a particular date. This is not the case. The position on accessible taxis is that whilst the Department's Best Practice Guidance urges licensing authorities to consider policies which enhance provision for people with disabilities, the actual decision on whether to make a requirement in any particular district rests with local licensing authorities. We have no plans to change that. Back

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