“I am now clear that, since the end of the first round of consultations in 2011, the arguments for a review of the full tunnel proposal and possible alternatives have substantially increased. There has been a growing amount of opposition against the full tunnel from my constituents and other constituents in greater London.”

I go on to say that we should therefore give that argument greater weight.

Let me turn to the substance of the financial issues, which are dealt with in this part of the Bill. Back in 2007, a memorandum was submitted to the Treasury Committee by a Mr Martin Blaiklock—consultant, infrastructure and energy project finance—on the subject of Thames Water specifically, but also on equity-type investment generally. He said:

“Over the last 12 months I have be keeping a particularly close watch on the activities of Thames Water, not least because I am a Thames Water customer, but also because it is one example,—and a good example,—of Private Equity involvement with public services. The case of Thames is significant as it is the UK’s largest privatised water utility, serving the Capital and 13 million customers, and also a monopoly service provider...Thames Water Utilities Limited…is the utility licensed by OFWAT. However, Thames Water Utilities Limited is 5 or 6 times removed from the controlling investor group…of whom a number are based offshore in Luxemburg…Is this the ‘transparent’ corporate structure expected of a UK monopoly public service provider?”

I cannot put this on the record, but there is a helpful graph in that memorandum to the Treasury Committee showing Thames Water Utilities Ltd at the bottom. Above it are lots of holding companies, including Thames

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Water plc, Thames Water Holdings plc, Kemble Water Ltd and Kemble Water Holdings Ltd, and intermediate holding companies. The list goes right up to non-Macquarie investors and then to Macquarie, and shows the purchase of part of the company by the Chinese state finance organisation and others. That shows an organisation that does not do transparent finance. We therefore need certain safeguards to be put in place to protect any taxpayer investment and Government support.

The company also has considerable activity in the Cayman Islands. I am not sure whether that is the most appropriate way for a major utility company to spend its money. The tax arrangements of Thames Water, having been bought by Kemble, have involved setting up a subsidiary financing branch in the Cayman Islands, based at Ugland House, which has 18,856 other businesses registered at it. There is a real question of transparency for Thames Water, and the Government need to have a public debate on it. We need to look at this matter in Committee and on Report to determine exactly how the financing arrangements are arrived at. There is at the moment no proposal from Thames Water as to how it will raise the £4.1 billion to finance the project, and I am concerned that the cost might ultimately be borne by the Thames Water ratepayer, which might not provide the best value for money for our constituents who pay their bills.

Mr Blaiklock concluded:

“There is no doubt that the introduction of Private Equity-type investment into the privatised UK public services has sharpened up the financial management of such enterprises. However, such Private Equity investment has also

(a) introduced a lack of transparency in the control, governance and, therefore, the accounts of such utilities. Some utilities, such as Thames Water, are effectively owned and controlled offshore, possibly by companies with limited liability and domiciled in tax havens. Corporate information is, not surprisingly, hard to come by for such Private Equity investments! Hence, in the event of operational failure by such utilities…it is quite possible that the controlling company and its directors cannot be called to account, notwithstanding OFWAT’s Conditions P and F licensing requirements…

(b) increased the leverage and, thereby, decreased the financial strength of such utilities, at the expense of customers and the security of service; and

(c) introduced corporate uncertainty. The investment horizon for Private Equity is traditionally three to five years, which is short for public service utilities, which require long-term capital and financial stability. The only balancing feature has been the increased intervention, as direct investors, by pension funds and life insurance companies—as principals, not clients—albeit some are offshore owned and controlled. Such investors have longer time horizons and are ideal investors for such public service utilities.”

The other activity that is certainly questionable is the way in which Thames Water has managed its affairs in recent years. Extremely high dividend payments have been made over the past years, representing a direct transfer of income and capital out of Thames Water to private investors. At the financial year end in 2011, Thames Water made £225.2 million in profits, but it distributed £271.4 million in dividends. This high dividend policy is a recent development, but it is not limited to last year. In 2010, the unadjusted common dividend payout ratio, in percentage terms, was 141.5%—that is, nearly half as much again, on top of profits, was paid out. The figure for 2009 was 126.7%—a quarter as much paid out again as was made in profits, and in

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2008, 61.3% was paid out. That contrasts with Anglian Water’s dividend ratio of 81.%, Southern Water’s 58.7% and South East Water’s 48.4%. The policy of paying higher returns to investors started immediately after the company was purchased by the consortium behind Kemble Holdings in 2007. The company paid out £535 million in dividends in 2007, and £233 million in 2008.

All this has happened while the company has vastly increased its debt position. In the financial report of 2008, the change in the amount of debt held by Thames Water was more than £1.5 billion. Ofwat warned the bidding companies to keep a good debt ratio, advising that 45% would be appropriate. The ratio is now at 80%. We—Parliament—and the Government need to ask why Thames Water has increased its debt holding by so much when it is known that it has an extremely large capital project coming up, which will need a substantial amount of borrowing.

My question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is whether the Government have investigated whether Thames Water would have been able to make a greater contribution to any scheme from its own funds if it had not spent the last few years borrowing money in order to pay itself. Both the financial policy and the tax arrangements of Thames Water seem to me to be appropriate for us to debate.

My conclusion is that we might need to insert conditions into the Bill regarding any financial arrangements whereby the Government underwrite the borrowing by Thames Water, making it clear that they should be transparent, ethical and accountable so that Thames Water users, those of us who represent people in the Thames Water area and everybody else in the country can understand that there has been some pretty strange organisational finance going on in the last five years. We must make sure that the objectives do not feather the nests of the equity investors rather than benefit Thames Water users, so we must ensure that we have the right financial vehicles if we are to go ahead with infrastructure projects like this one. We will have plenty of opportunity to debate the project itself on other occasions, but I hope that the Secretary of State will be sensitive, as I know the Treasury is sensitive, to these real concerns about how Thames Water runs its financial affairs.

6.47 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I would like to talk about the Bill’s impact on people in north-east England and to outline some of the responsibilities that water companies, which make billions of pounds of profit between them, might need to be compelled to fulfil, although I acknowledge that some do the right thing—part of the time, at least.

I would also like to take the opportunity to invite those who want a consistent and high-quality water supply to come to the north-east—industrialists, manufacturers, green revolution companies, call centres, breweries and individual people would all be made welcome in the region. My message to allcomers is clear: “You need water; we’ve got it”—and I would encourage anyone needing water for their businesses to get in touch with Tees Valley Unlimited, and we will work with them to develop their business without fear of ever having to do without their water supply.

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What of domestic supplies and customers? About 370,000 people in the north-east spend more than 3% of their income on water, which is why I am glad that the Opposition will introduce a new clause to enable the introduction of national minimum standards for water company social tariffs. Such tariffs will ensure that financial assistance is provided to those most in need across the country—not just to those in the south-west, about whom we have heard so much. It is worth noting that the south-west has almost exactly the same number of households paying a disproportionately large part of their income for water supplies.

Some Members have talked about water meters, and I would encourage all individuals and families to explore using them. My personal saving in my home came to about 60%, so people should look at this option to solve some of their financial issues. However, I recognise that that is more difficult for families than for a couple living in a larger house.

There has been a lot of consensus around the place today, but it saddens me to say that the Government are taking a similar approach to that being taken to the big six energy companies. The Government seem incapable of taking on the powerful vested interests of the large water companies and are set to miss the opportunity to make a real difference with a more comprehensive Bill that would put pressure on companies to deliver for our communities the services they deserve at a reasonable and fair cost. From April, water bills will rise by an average of 5.7%, which is a huge amount, given that for many ordinary families pay freezes and job losses are the name of the game. Such a hands-off approach from the Government is truly shameful and it is even more appalling when people are already contending with a 20% increase in energy bills over the past year.

More important than that, however, is the following question: did we really hand over or sell our water assets to allow companies to make huge profits, borrow on the back of those assets to pay dividends and still fail to provide enough water for people in the south to water their gardens if they choose to do so? I am particularly concerned and surprised about the proposals in clause 1 to allow the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance—taxpayers’ money—at the stroke of a pen if she

“considers it desirable to do so”

to a privately owned water or sewerage company that may be failing in its basic duty to deliver an adequate water supply all year round in parts of our country. I do not know how much cash the Secretary of State will have to splash around, but providing a blank cheque at taxpayers’ expense and at a whim to any water company she likes, whenever she likes, is absolutely not what is needed to ensure that ordinary people get a fair deal on their water.

That issue is all the more pressing given that huge areas of the south and east of England are suffering their worst drought in almost 35 years. One recently proposed solution is shown in the decision by a utility company to draw up plans for a £2.6 billion pipeline to send water from the north to the drought-hit south. United Utilities has revealed plans for the pipeline, but I must question whether it is really the answer. It would be incredibly expensive to transport water from north to south, and I know who will end up meeting the cost.

The Environment Agency last looked at the idea of a pipeline in 2006 and estimated that it would cost up to

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eight times more than developing the existing infrastructure. Water is heavy—1 cubic metre of water, which is what one person uses a week on average, weighs a full metric tonne—so the energy required for the construction, development and operation of large-scale water transfer systems also adds further to carbon emissions, which lead to climate change.

The north-east of England has significant infrastructure for industrial and domestic water supply. One of Europe’s largest man-made lakes, Kielder water in Northumberland, was created to supply water to the industry of north-east England, much of it on Teesside, in and around my constituency. Sadly, the growth of some of the industries, such as steel, that are heavily water intensive did not materialise. As we have seen, the north-east economy has been rebalanced in recent times, with different industries and a wider range of jobs. That was done under the previous Government and, of course, the work was led by the now defunct One North East regional development agency.

In recent years, Kielder water has come into its own, with underground springs ensuring that it always remains at a high level, regardless of the prevailing climate. That means that while the south of England is often forced to implement drought strategies and hosepipe bans, north-east England enjoys plentiful water supplies. People in the north-east have, of course, had to pay the price for an abundant water supply, which is now managed by Northumbrian Water. Unlike other companies, it has pegged its price rise to inflation this year. Over the years, however, consumers in the region have paid higher bills to finance this reservoir, and given such an abundance of water there are surely no excuses for a hike in prices when there is no need for investment in reservoir infrastructure. Northumbrian Water does do the right thing; it does invest in works and it works hard for its communities. We all like the idea of reduced bills, but we also need investment and the constant water supply that we have in the north-east. Indeed, with such an abundance of water, instead of transferring large amounts of water to the overcrowded and drought-ridden south, would it not make both environmental and economic sense for industry to move to the north-east? I have already issued the invitation: “Come north, we have all the water anyone needs.”

If we are going to go down the north-south route, I want to know what the benefits will be for people in north-east England. They have paid for the investment—will they get a dividend through reduced bills when their water is moved elsewhere, if that ever happens?

On a different matter, is it not an absolute disgrace that in England and Wales leakage rates, at about 25%, are higher than a decade ago? Some private companies, now exporting their profits to their shareholders overseas, are failing in their duty to create 21st century services for our people. Water companies might have done well on investment, but they have done so at the expense of consumers.

What action will the Secretary of State take, for example, to cut Thames Water’s obscene leakage rates? The company loses 30% of the water it puts into the mains—200 litres a day for every customer—yet it has posted profits, in what could be considered a bad year, of £208.5 million. That money could go a long way towards investing in improvements and helping the company to move towards the record of Paris and New

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York, which lose only 10% in leakage, or perhaps, one day, to equal Singapore, where the leakage rate is about 5%.

I have already personally dismissed the idea of the water-rich north sending our supply south, but water companies in the south could help themselves, each other and consumers. Last December, the Environment Agency told Ministers that the myriad small water companies in south-east England could save £500 million by 2035 if they shared supplies. Instead, the companies were planning to saddle customers with a bill of £760 billion for unnecessary new reservoirs. What will the Government do about that? Will they introduce legislation to deal with some of those matters?

Will the Government make any moves to force the private water companies to take the right action, stop the leaks, share supplies around the country where necessary and deliver for consumers? I do not think the Bill demonstrates that the Government have a long-term vision for affordable water supplies or the industry as a whole, and I only hope Ministers will take action to sort it out. My message tonight is: “If you want water and you’re an industrialist, come to the north-east.”

6.57 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): It is a delight and a pleasure to participate in this debate, particularly as I come from a city that has Burrator reservoir, which was built by Sir Francis Drake and is in the Torridge and West Devon constituency. I also want to thank hon. Members for the tone of the debate. It has most certainly been a cross-party debate and we have been able to support what is being proposed. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who came to Plymouth earlier this week to support south-west Devon and to visit Plymouth Marine Laboratory, a premier marine scientific research organisation. He was able to talk about how the cost on top of the water rates is £15 for those people, because of bad debts.

I am aware that the issue of water rates has been very important, particularly in my constituency. I pay tribute, oddly enough, to my predecessor, who was the Labour Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and campaigned very effectively along with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) to ensure that this message was heard. I have become aware in the course of today’s debate that we have all worked together to achieve this, but that it is this Government who have delivered the ability to ensure the £50 provision. We have all worked together as Members of Parliament and, more importantly, we have made sure that 90% of the Members of Parliament in the south-west have been sending a clear message, too.

There has been an enormous amount of regeneration in my constituency, but in 1997 St Peter’s ward was one of the poorest wards in the whole country. People in the ward have been challenged to ensure that they can meet their water bills. The £50 reduction is welcome, and I thank my hon. Friends for the hard work that they have done, but the 4% increase—

7 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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Business without Debate


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Social Security

That the draft Social Security (Contributions) (Limits and Thresholds) (Amendment) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 30 January, be approved.—(Mr Dunne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

That the draft Social Security (Contributions) (Re-rating) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 30 January, be approved.—(Mr Dunne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


That the draft Schools (Specification and Disposal of Articles) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 19 January, be approved.—(Mr Dunne.)

Question agreed to.

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European Union documents

Motion made, and Question put f orthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11 )),

Safety of Offshore Oil and Gas Activities

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 16175/11 and Addenda 1 to 4, relating to a Draft Regulation on the safety of offshore oil and gas prospection, exploration and production activities; supports the Government’s view that the UK has a proven, robust offshore environmental and safety regime; and further supports the Government’s intention to negotiate a legal instrument which ensures that high standards of health and safety and high levels of protection for the environment are maintained across Europe in respect of oil and gas operations, and that any new proposals do not negatively impact upon the present UK regime.—(Mr Dunne.)

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 7 March (Standing Order No. 41A).



That at the sitting on Monday 5 March paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) shall apply to the motions in the name of Edward Miliband as if the day were an Opposition Day.—(Mr Heath.)



That, at the sitting on Tuesday 6 March, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means shall be entered upon (whether before, at or after 7.00 pm), and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business.—(Mr Heath.)

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Private Hire and Hackney Carriage Vehicles

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

7.2 pm

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I was prompted to call this debate to discuss the safety of private hire and taxi drivers and their passengers as a result of recent events in my constituency—the death of a constituent who was a private hire driver and an assault on another driver. More broadly, I want to encourage the Minister to make it his priority to transform the perception, and too often the reality, that private hire and taxi drivers are given second-class status in our public transport system when it comes to their safety. I also wish to highlight to the Minister some of the impediments to the safety of passengers that have been highlighted to me by Am I Safe?, a developer of applications to help passengers to verify at the point of hire that a vehicle is legitimately licensed. Those impediments arise from the complex regulatory structures, differing rules, and inconsistent interpretation of access to information rights that arise from the various licensing authorities.

Private hire and taxi drivers are a vital part of our public transport system, and when it comes to their physical safety and the safety of their property, they deserve to be afforded the same protection as our bus drivers, airline staff and railway employees, but they are not. In many towns such as Bedford, if a person has been out for the evening with their friends, private hire vehicles and taxis are often the only answer to the question, “Who will take me home tonight?”, yet drivers routinely have to deal with people who can be abusive, and may be under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both. A journey may end with someone vomiting in the vehicle or running off without paying. Private hire and taxi drivers run those risks—not routinely, of course, but much more frequently than many of the public would appreciate.

Let me turn to recent incidents in Bedford. As Adam Thompson of the Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper reported,

“Fayaz Alhaq…who runs AGS Cars in St Peter’s Street, Bedford, says his employees are ‘running a gauntlet’ every weekend and have a job ‘as dangerous as the police’. His words come after 61-year-old grandfather Mehar Dhariwal of…Kempston…died…having been assaulted the week before while working.”

Mr Thompson’s report went on:

“Only last month Bedfordshire on Sunday reported how 24/7 private hire driver Turbez Ahmed…was attacked…by a gang of eight who wouldn’t pay their fare up front.”

Efforts by Bedfordshire police to bring to justice the assailants in those two horrific and sad cases go on. I do not want to obscure those efforts by talking further about those instances, but although they are specific cases, sadly they are not isolated examples.

A freedom of information request to Bedfordshire police showed that there had been 93 assaults in the preceding 12 months on private hire and taxi drivers, including 35 cases of aggravated bodily harm and 30 common assaults. My local authority estimates that

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that amounts to 2% of drivers being assaulted each year. Very few jobs have such a high rate of unprovoked violence.

I have spoken with the National Private Hire Association, the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, and Private Hire News, and I am indebted to them for their engagement and assistance with my preparation for the debate. They all, without exception, talked openly and depressingly about the widespread nature of violence towards drivers, and said, even more worryingly, that the level of violence continues to increase.

The National Private Hire Association sent me news reports of attacks on drivers with knives; guns, fake and real; baseball bats; a hammer; a fire extinguisher; and even a wheelie bin. Drivers have been set on fire and run over by their own vehicles. I have not found any nationally collated statistics on assaults and murders of private hire and hackney carriage drivers. Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether those statistics are collated. If not, that in itself indicates that the issue of safety is not receiving the attention that it should. The GMB union kept a record of attacks between April 2007 and February 2008; it listed that nine drivers were killed and 45 suffered serious physical assaults while doing their job. The Department for Transport conducted research on personal security issues in 2008 and found that, on average, three drivers a year are unlawfully killed—evidence from across the country that our private hire and taxi drivers are at risk. I would argue that we have not made sufficient progress in mitigating those risks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) raised the issue in a debate on 24 June 2009. That debate was interesting because of a number of points that he raised, but also because he noted the extent of the private hire and taxi sector. He said that

“we are talking about an industry that employs 340,000 people…The industry makes about 700 million taxi journeys a year, which means an average of roughly 11 journeys for each member of the population. About £3 billion is spent on fares each year. We are therefore talking about a sizeable industry that plays a major role in our public transportation.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 912.]

The Minister responding that day, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), was alert to the issue of driver safety and made some useful suggestions, but underlying that debate and much of the industry commentary is a sort of shrug-of-the-shoulders view that the issue is just too tough to tackle, and in some sense that it is the cost of doing business. What strikes me is not the fair and sometimes compelling explanations of the complexities of implementing changes that will tackle these widespread instances of assault, but that given these horrific attacks at such high incidence rates for so many years in a single sector of the economy, we have allowed the complexities to thwart our action for so long.

In the search for remedies, I turn first to the perception of the industry. Department for Transport research in 2008 found that

“a strong belief held by many drivers, controllers and others representing the trade is that the root cause of many of the problems is a lack of respect from the public for taxi and private hire drivers.”

That lack of respect can make the transition to abuse or to violence a much easier step to take. It is a sad fact also that this lack of respect too often descends into racial abuse.

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I understand that a similar issue confronted the door security sector—I am not sure whether we can call them bouncers these days. The violence against bouncers was seen as part of that job, but a focused effort on changing that perception, together with other initiatives, has had a positive impact, reducing the incidence of attacks on door security staff at our pubs and clubs. What, in practical terms, has the Department for Transport done since 2008 to tackle the public perception of the industry, and what steps would the Minister consider undertaking? Perhaps it would be appropriate for the Transport Committee to assist in this effort.

Also in 2008 under the previous Government, the Sentencing Guidelines Council included taxi and private hire drivers in that category of workers where longer sentences would result from a crime. What assessment has the Department made of the impact of those changes in sentencing guidelines? Does the Minister believe that further action to strengthen the guidelines is warranted?

The national associations and the GMB raised with me the issue of the introduction of CCTV and/or driver shields. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those, as I understand that there are differing opinions about the desirability of each of those options, but he will be aware of the initiatives by some local authorities to investigate or roll out CCTV solutions. They have been considered for Brighton, Braintree, Oxford, Manchester and other locations. He will be equally aware of the very high cost of some of these solutions. It is unfair to expect drivers to bear the full cost of the equipment, particularly if the market price continues to be hundreds of pounds.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): There has recently been a change to legislation in Northern Ireland to increase safety for taxi drivers and passengers and to regulate the sector. That resulted from attacks on both parties. Does the hon. Gentleman think that where there is good practice somewhere in the United Kingdom—in this case, in Northern Ireland—that could be used as an example to produce better regulation for taxi drivers on the mainland?

Richard Fuller: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which highlights the fact that so many authorities are responsible for licensing, and the complexity of various initiatives taking place. I understand that the Law Commission will examine certain aspects of regulation, but he makes an excellent point about the need for best practice to be applied across the country. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response and his thoughts on the balance between localism and trying to tackle a national concern.

My view is that it would be unfair to expect drivers to bear the cost of CCTV, particularly if the price of the equipment remains in the hundreds of pounds. I do not expect public money to be made available in these straitened times, but I do know that in 2006 Bedford borough council worked with Bedfordshire police to use some of the proceeds of crime moneys to implement CCTV in a pilot scheme at low or no cost to drivers. In Leicester, funds from the tackling knives action programme have been used. In other local authorities, advertising on cabs has been enabled to fund the cost of CCTV.

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I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of the more widespread use of proceeds of crime moneys for this purpose.

I mentioned the lack of statistics on crime. I always think that if we do not track something, we will find it hard to make improvements. Therefore, will the Minister work with the Home Office to track more formally the statistics on criminal attacks on private hire drivers, including aggravated racial abuse? Will he also comment on whether he will seek opinions from the private hire and taxi trade as input to the Prime Minister’s alcohol strategy? Unfortunately, so many of these incidents of crime correlate with alcohol and drug misuse.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I commend the work of Woking street angels in my constituency, and similar street angels across the country, and also pay tribute to the licensed taxi drivers who have an arrangement with the street angels to take drunk and incapacitated passengers safely home, unless they are potentially violent, in which case the police are called. The drivers sometimes do that at no cost to the passengers. Is that something that my hon. Friend would like to see in more parts of the country?

Richard Fuller: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many excellent initiatives in towns across the country. They have recognised the problem of growing levels of alcohol abuse and the late night trade generally. We see organisations such as street angels working with the police, local authorities and taxi companies to ensure that towns do not suffer as a result of people staying out too long and that they get home safely. That relates to the point the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about the importance of local initiatives being given a national profile so that we can make changes all the way across.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) enables me to segue over to talk about the safety of passengers. It is a sad reflection on the taxi industry that, despite the significant efforts made by local authorities, which he mentioned, any cursory review of local newspapers will readily identify cases of assault—frequently sexual assault—of passengers by taxi drivers. That is the flipside of the issue of vulnerability. There is the vulnerability of drivers who are on their own, perhaps with cash, and the vulnerability of people being driven home on their own. In 2002, the Metropolitan police estimated that in London alone 214 women had been raped or sexually assaulted in such circumstances in the preceding year. The figure fell to 93 by 2009 but has recently increased.

There is a range of initiatives that national Government and local authorities are taking to reduce risks to passengers. I will not dwell on those in too much detail, but a particular issue I want to highlight for the Minister is the limitations and availability of publicly held data that might be useful in reducing offences against passengers. There are currently 384 licensing authorities in the UK, each of which will have its own policies on the collection of data on drivers, such as their Criminal Records Bureau checks, and on their vehicles, and each authority will have its own rules about sharing that information. As we know, information is power, and that power ought to be available to passengers, should they wish to have it, when they hire a cab. It would provide reassurance to know that the vehicle and the driver are properly licensed.

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Am I safe? is a service that currently operates in more than 50 towns and covers 10% of the UK population, but it reports that local authority information gathering is patchy and that the timeliness of updates varies. I do not know whether that application is the best, but I believe that it makes sense to make this regulated information more accessible and more accurate. Therefore, I ask the Minister for his views on the value of a national registration database of private hire drivers and licensed vehicles and, more broadly, his comments on the need for rigour in data collection and CRB checks.

Often, in towns and villages throughout our country, the only public transport option for getting back home after a night out is a cab—a private hire vehicle or hackney carriage. It is time for the Government, notwithstanding the Law Commission’s review of legislation, to come forward with some initiatives that will make our private hire and taxi sectors a respected part of our transport system—a status that they and we, the public, deserve.

7.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for raising this important subject of taxi and private hire vehicle safety, and for securing the time to allow us to debate the issues. This debate comes at a time when there have been a number of very serious alleged assaults on and by taxi drivers, and that is a matter of great concern.

Licensing authorities will do their best, I am sure, but the unfortunate fact remains that taxis and private hire vehicles can never be perfectly safe. They are often hired from isolated places at night; drivers carry cash; and, self-evidently, taking a taxi or private hire vehicle generally involves getting into a car with a stranger. That combination of factors makes drivers and passengers particularly vulnerable to violence, and it is important that we take what steps we can to minimise the risks.

In looking at safety, we normally focus on the passenger’s perspective, but my hon. Friend quite rightly refers to the dangers that exist for drivers as well. A report from the Department in 2007 found that on average three drivers a year are killed unlawfully. Each crime is of course unacceptable, but it is worth putting into context the fact that journeys in taxis and private hire vehicles account for just over 1% of all journeys per person per year, and that is 700 million journeys or 3.5 billion miles per year. That, of course, is of no comfort to those who are subject to the unwarranted and unprovoked attacks to which my hon. Friend referred.

Let me look at how we might make the experience safer for the passenger and driver, starting with the passenger. First, local authorities, as licensing authorities, are obliged to ensure that only those who are “fit and proper”—the term in law—should be licensed as taxi or private hire vehicle drivers, and it falls to individual councils to ensure that that is the case.

The Criminal Records Bureau check is a central element of that assessment process. A number of organisations have raised with me their concerns that some taxi drivers have only a standard criminal record check because the law does not allow for all of them to have enhanced checks. Enhanced criminal record checks

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include any relevant local police information, in addition to a record of previous criminal convictions, cautions and warnings, but those checks have, in law, been restricted to drivers who work regularly with vulnerable adults or with children.

I agree that licensing authorities should be able to see enhanced criminal record checks in respect of all taxi and private hire vehicle driver licence applicants, regardless of the type of work that they intend to undertake once licensed, and I have been working closely with colleagues in the Home Office and, in particular, with my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, who announced in January that all taxi and private hire vehicle drivers will be entitled to enhanced criminal record checks. The necessary legislative change has now been made by the Home Office, and today I can confirm that it will come into force on 26 March.

The Minister for Equalities also announced that licensing authorities will be entitled to check whether any applicant is barred from working with children or with vulnerable adults under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. That is a good example of the Government listening to the experts and acting accordingly. Licensing officers have told us that they need to be able to see enhanced criminal record checks in order to make a proper assessment of applicants’ suitability, and we are responding by providing them with the tools that they need to carry out that vital task.

There is also a growing need for information about licensed vehicles, a point that my hon. Friend helpfully made in his lucid comments. That information enables the public to verify immediately whether a given vehicle is licensed, and it helps with the “traceability” trail. There is a difficulty when it involves personal information relating to individuals, but that is a matter for local authorities to weigh up against their wider obligations and considerations, including, under the Data Protection Act 1998, the protection of personal information.

I am happy to say, however, that I am aware of Transport for London’s vehicle-checker facility, which enables the public to input a vehicle registration plate and discover whether the vehicle is actually licensed as a private hire vehicle. That is a helpful facility, and I for one cannot see why licensing authorities should hold back on providing such information. As I was aware that my hon. Friend might raise that matter, I spoke to a leading national licensing organisation just yesterday and said that I thought it ought to respond positively to requests for vehicle licensing information, if not proactively put it on its website. It agreed, and said that it would disseminate that message to its member authorities.

I move on to the hugely important issue of drivers’ personal safety. I was very sorry to learn of the incidents in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I extend my sympathies and those of the Government to those who have been subject to serious assaults there and elsewhere, and perhaps particularly to the family of the 61-year-old grandfather to whom he referred. I was particularly horrified by my hon. Friend’s description of the range of weapons that are sometimes used against drivers who are simply going about their lawful business. It is intolerable that they should be subject to attacks such as he described. The lack of respect to which he referred is clearly an important factor to be taken into account.

I turn to the questions that my hon. Friend asked. I agree with him that there is a problem of perception. We will examine the parallel position of doormen, to

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which he referred, to see whether there are lessons that might be sensibly transferred across.

My hon. Friend asked about statistics. Because licensing is largely a local function—it has been since 1847 or before—there is not the depth of national statistics that he or I might like. However, we will talk to the statisticians to see what is available, and I will write to him to let him know. We will also consider whether the statistics that are available in different places might be accumulated to give us a better picture of what is happening. Of course, local authorities may hold information, and I will ask my officials to talk to the national body of licensing officers to see whether it has information that might throw a light on the matter and what else might usefully be done. If there is information such as he mentioned, I will happily share it with the Prime Minister’s team that is examining the alcohol strategy and with the Home Office more generally in respect of the crime statistics that it collects. I certainly agree that it might be useful to track criminal attacks on private hire vehicle and taxi drivers more formally.

I am familiar with the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, because I was on the Bill Committee when it was taken through Parliament. It was a useful Act. I am not aware that it has been applied directly in cases such as we are discussing, but I am happy to ensure that my colleagues at the Home Office are made aware of my hon. Friend’s comments and concerns on that matter and others affecting them. I will write to the relevant Minister to make him or her aware of the contents of today’s debate and my hon. Friend’s comments, including those relating to the Act.

My hon. Friend mentioned CCTV. Any decision to install it in cabs or elsewhere must of course involve clarity about the purpose of doing so. It is important to consider carefully its potential contribution towards achieving that purpose, the costs and whether the intrusion into individual privacy is appropriate and proportionate. CCTV in taxis and private hire vehicles is by its nature intrusive, putting law-abiding people under surveillance and recording their movements, although it might be argued that individuals accept that by flagging down a taxi or booking a private hire vehicle.

CCTV can be effective in both preventing and detecting crime and antisocial behaviour, and owners and drivers of vehicles understandably often want to install security measures to protect the driver. However, there is a balance to be struck, not least given the Data Protection Act’s provisions on the processing of personal data. Nevertheless, the personal security of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers and staff clearly needs to be considered as well.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires local authorities and others to consider crime and disorder

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reduction while exercising all their duties. The Department’s best practice guidance suggests that the installation and use of appropriate safety measures is best left to the judgment of the owners and drivers themselves, but we would encourage licensing authorities to look sympathetically on, or actively encourage, measures that protect drivers.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Protection of Freedoms Bill is being considered in another place. The Bill includes provisions further to regulate CCTV and other surveillance camera systems. Those provisions include the introduction of a statutory surveillance camera systems code of practice and the appointment of a surveillance camera commissioner to encourage compliance, provide advice and information, and monitor the code’s effectiveness. I will maintain an interest in the development of the code to ensure that CCTV associated with public transport, including taxis, is addressed appropriately.

Drivers can use a range of other security measures to improve their personal safety, including conflict avoidance training. The Department has issued guidance for taxi and PHV drivers about how best to protect themselves, and that is on the Department’s website.

Clearly, enforcement is a hot topic. I commend Transport for London’s Safer Travel at Night campaign, which aims to reduce the number of cab-related sexual offences by raising awareness of the dangers of using unbooked minicabs, also known as touts, and illegal cabs. It also involves targeted police and enforcement activity to identify, disrupt and deter illegal cab activity. Transport for London has, through a sustained effort, made great strides in reducing cab-related sexual offences and instances of touting, although I accept that there remains an outstanding concern relating to pedicabs, which are outwith the PHV and taxi licensing system.

More generally, I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend said, the Law Commission has agreed to undertake a comprehensive review of the law governing taxis and PHVs. The fact that taxis outside London are licensed under an Act of 1847, and those inside London under an Act dating from 1869, speaks volumes. The Law Commission is a body dedicated to, and expert in, unravelling complex and archaic legislation and replacing it with modern, simplified legislation, and I hope that it will take on board issues relating to safety as part of its work. The commission embarked on the review in July 2011, it will be consulting in the spring, and it will provide us with a report and draft Bill in November 2013.

I hope that that is helpful in taking forward the genuine and proper concerns that my hon. Friend has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

7.31 pm

House adjourned.