HC Deb 08 November 1951 vol 493 cc478-88

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Drewe.]

10.1 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

In the life-time of the last Parliament I led a deputation of the taxicab proprietors of Southampton to the Home Secretary to place before him some of the grievances of that industry. As a result of discussions that I had with members of this industry in my home town, I wish tonight to ventilate some of the problems of the taxi industry and in particular their grievances about unfair competition from the men whom they call "pirates."

May I first, however, extend my congratulations to the new Minister of Transport and to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport on their new appointments, and welcome the Parliamentary Secretary on his first official duty in the new Parliament. The courtesies of Parliament are of old standing and not the least of its many attributes is that we fight politically and not personally. In previous Parliaments we have watched the work of the new Minister as one of the most accomplished sharp-shooters, or light skirmishers, of his party, his skill as a Parliamentarian, like Shakespeare's poet: Giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name if thereby he could serve the Opposition and hamper the Government. In the grim political battles ahead we shall watch with great interest this poacher turned gamekeeper—I will not say this harrier turned hare. But tonight it is a non-contentious debate and I am grateful to the Minister for accepting it at the short notice I was compelled to give him.

I understand that the matters I raise concern both the Ministry of Transport and the Home Office, and I urge that both Ministries give serious consideration to the points I make tonight. In this debate I speak for all sections of the taxi industry, in Southampton, for the drivers and owner-drivers who are members of the Transport and General Workers' Union, on the one hand, and for the proprietors who own a number of taxis on the other. I thought at first I was raising a local problem, but in the last 48 hours I have spoken with taximen on the various ranks in London and I have found that what I have to say tonight concerns the taximen in London, and probably taximen everywhere.

The taxi industry is heavily hit by Purchase Tax on new cars and by the Petrol Duty. Purchase Tax is designed to stop luxury buying in order to force cars on to the export market. This is excellent general policy, but it is a severe burden on taximen whose cars are no luxury but the means of earning their living, and the most important cost item of their business. Petrol Duty, the increase in maintenance costs, especially the increase in the cost of rubber tyres, all make a very heavy burden on the men in this industry. In these difficult times they are compelled to raise their charges. This makes it increasingly difficult for them to obtain customers and so earn a decent livelihood.

It would be beyond the scope of this debate, if indeed it were even practical politics, to suggest that the Government should seek some way of exempting the taxi industry from the burdens of Purchase Tax on new cars and all these various increases in costs. But it is against a background of an industry struggling for existence that I want to urge the need for all of us to see that the laws governing the taxi industry are better carried out and, where necessary, improved, to secure this industry from what they regard as unfair competition.

First, I wish to make a very simple point which has some bearing on the question of increased charges. Southampton taximen had the proud record of never having raised their charges for over 25 years, and they still charged Is. a mile when the last Budget but one imposed on them heavy new costs. Yet it took them over 12 months to secure permission to raise their charges to meet increased burdens placed on them dramatically in one Budget.

I hope that the Ministers will see that, when the taxi industry is faced with a savage new charge at the moment of a new Budget, everything is done to avoid delay in making the necessary adjustments in the charges. But even more important in the view of taxi proprietors and men is the need for strong action on a national basis against the menace to their already endangered livelihood by "pirate" cars.

Taxi men and their taxis are licensed by the local authority. Their cars are examined under the strictest standards for cleanliness, efficiency, road-worthiness and safety. Each taxi bears official indication of the fact that it is a duly registered and duly accredited taxi. Strict rules govern their method of working. They must take their place on the official ranks. After dropping a fare they must go back to the rank. While moving from place to place, they must show their "For Hire" sign if they are empty, and take any customer who hails them. But they are forbidden to hang about, to loiter or to park to secure fares away from the taxi rank. They must have a taxi meter which must clearly show the official scale of charges.

Because taxis and taximen are easily identified, the men can be, and are punished by the police for the slightest infraction of this code of conduct. Taximen make no complaint about all this. They recognise that the code protects the public, protects them, makes for road safety and gives their industry security as long as the law is not flouted with impunity by other competitors.

Private hire cars operate from some place of business. They are booked for specific purposes, and after taking their passenger must return to their place of business. Most of the large private hire car companies, and most individual private hire car operators, work a similar price scale to that of the taxis. Most of them voluntarily conform to similar high standards of cleanliness and efficiency, and many of the larger private hire car companies also have taxi meters. Between the taxi section of this industry and the reputable private hire car section there is complete understanding, even if there is competition. Each serves a different function. Each plays the game by the other, and each is aware of the lines of demarcation between their respective trades.

In my own town, some firms even provide the two services, a number of registered taxis and a car hire service. Neither side complains of the other's business, provided that the rules of the game are kept. But a number of private individuals secure for the nominal sum of one shilling, I understand, some kind of hackney driver's licence or permit, entitling them to put up a hackney carriage plate, and they run what the taximen call a "pirate" trade in competition with the taxi service established by law.

Many of the "pirates" imitate as nearly as possible any official distinguishing marks which the local police authority have decided are to be the official marks for registered taxis in that area. The "pirates" are not subject to the same annual examination as that of a taxi for decent upkeep and road-worthiness. Because they are private cars and not official taxis, it is easier for them to pick up in the street. They can loiter about, and they can, in the opinion of the taxi-men, steal the legitimate business of the taxi industry.

It is difficult for the police to check them, whereas the taximan is rigidly bound by law. They can park almost anywhere, and many of them carry an illuminated sign which would lead the unsuspecting public to think that they are taxis in the official sense of the word. They can create what are almost unofficial taxi ranks of their own in a town. With the aid of confederates who are prepared to act as alibis, they can pretend to be waiting for someone who has booked them when they are challenged by the police, whereas they are actually breaking the law and endeavouring to steal the taximen's business.

They are bound by no official scale of charges. Anyone who enters one of these pirate cars functioning as an illegal taxi is really making a private contract on the spot. He does not usually recognise that he is not in a taxi, perhaps, until well on his way he finds that there is no meter. At the end of his journey, he is often charged much more than the taximan's legal fare, and, if he complains to the police, as many of them do in Southampton, that he feels that he has been robbed, he has no redress. The illegal "pirate" is bound by none of the charges which the local authority fixes for taxi-men.

The bona fide taximen feel, first of all, that this is unfair competition. Taxi standards of efficiency and taxi regulations, meant to protect both the public and the licensed taxi, mean extra expense for the honest man and restrictions on the honest man, but they are flouted by the "pirates." Moreover, they feel that the effect of an excessive charge by a "pirate" makes the passenger feel that he has been cheated and blame all taxi-men, making him less willing to take a taxi in future.

Further, the "pirate" often makes this a part-time job, and earns his living during the day in some other way, going out on his piracy at night. His part-time job hits at the taximan's living and hits at the proprietor's business and the reasonable prospects of a proprietor who invests in a taxicab business. All this happens at a time when, as I have tried to show, it is a very difficult matter indeed for the taxi industry compelled to raise its charges by the Budget burden, to make a living for the drivers and a reasonable profit for the proprietors.

Even when the police catch a "pirate" —and may I say that the police are very sympathetic both locally and nationally to the case of the law-abiding taximan, but find it difficult to catch the lawbreaker—the maximum fine in my own town is £2, and I have discovered, to my surprise, that this is the maximum fine throughout the country. The man who has infringed the law laughs at such a penalty, and on the rare occasions when such men are caught and receive the maximum fine they regard it almost as much a legitimate expense to put against their business as does the smuggler who often pays his fine out of the vast sums he makes from other smuggling exploits.

I believe from what I have said that the House will see why the taximen feel aggrieved. A letter I have received from one taximan says: If any person ignores the bye-laws in any other trade or business, action is taken by the Council, but in our trade people are allowed to break the law and rob the public. Local authorities and local magistrates are not always sympathetic largely, I believe, because they neither understand nor appreciate the taximan's case. For every wrong committed by the "pirate," the whole of the taximen of the country bear the odium both with the public and with the authorities.

This, then, is the grievance of the taxi industry, and I am glad to have the opportunity of bringing it to the notice of the Minister, the House and the British public. It is a very difficult problem, and I make only tentative suggestions on how it might be tackled. First, there should be a nation-wide drive against the "pirates" who are breaking the law in this respect. I think that punishments should be stiffened. The constant offender who by his actions is deliberately flouting and challenging British law should in some way be prevented from repeating his offence. All imitation markings designed to mislead the public into thinking that the pirate car is an official taxi should be prohibited. There should be clear and recognisable differences between the two types of cars. Anyone who tries to make his car look like an official taxi is obviously doing so in order to cheat the public and should be punished for that offence.

I urge the two Ministries concerned—the Home Office, which is concerned with the licensing of taximen and, through the local authorities, of taxis, on the one hand, and the Ministry of Transport, which is concerned with the granting of ordinary licences, on the other to come together in dealing with this problem. Perhaps a solution might be found in the issuing of only one kind of licence or permit, thus making both the private hire car and the taxi subject to the same standards of car efficiency, and such licence or permit should not be issued again to anyone who has flouted the law. Again, the charges made by taxis might be made to apply also to the hire car sections. Meters might be made compulsory. As I said earlier, many of the reputable hire car firms have already introduced such meters.

I understand that there is in being a Home Office Working Party studying the hackney carriage laws. I would urge that if that report is available it should be published, or, if it is not yet ready, it should be published as soon as convenient. We have built up a system of regulations for taxis, and nobody would suggest that we should return to unchecked free enterprise in this field. We should see that the law is strengthened and more effectively enforced. I hope the Minister's reply will be sympathetic. The public, too, can help by seeing that they make use of official and legal taxis, and by realising that when they are made to pay an excessive charge it is usually because they have not taken the precaution of hiring a real taxi. If people are overcharged by a pirate car they should not blame the taximen, the bulk of whom are law-abiding citizens doing their job honestly and well.

I have endeavoured to present a case which, I hope, will commend itself to the Ministers in the two Ministries concerned.

10.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

The hon. Member for Test (Dr. King), was kind enough to make some complimentary references to this my first appearance at this Box, and I was glad to note that he does not resent the fact that I am deputising tonight for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department who is absent in Caernarvon on his new official duties. If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I do not propose in the short time available to deal with his Budgetary suggestions dealing with Purchase Tax and Petrol Duty—except to remark in passing that when we sat opposite we did our best to prevent the rise in Petrol Duty in the last two Budgets; but I shall concentrate rather on the main complaint of the hon. Gentleman.

Under the present law a motor vehicle carrying passengers for hire and adapted to seat eight or more requires a public service vehicle licence—under the Road Traffic Act, 1930. Hired vehicles seating less than eight require no such licence, nor do they need to be licensed as cabs unless they ply for hire. They are, therefore, subject, as the hon. Gentleman has reminded us, to no special licensing controls.

I would remind him and the House, however, that this question of cabs and private hire cars was considered as long ago as 1939 by an Inter-Departmental Committee set up by the then Home Secretary, now Lord Templewood, and the then Minister of Transport, the late Dr. Burgin. Their report was presented in Command Paper 5938. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman studied this before he raised this matter. I have been studying it today, and I have found it extremely interesting reading.

This Report related only to London, because examination of the position in the provinces was not completed before the outbreak of hostilities in that year, but in their report on London they did recommend that the operations of private hire cars should be subject to the control of a licensing system. That is in paragraph 64. The Committee expressed their provisional opinion that it was desirable to place the duty of granting licences in the hands of the Traffic Commissioners, and they said, in paragraph 79, that they regarded the Ministry of Transport as the appropriate central authority for this purpose.

The former Minister, the right hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), has informed the cab trade that the introduction of legislation for this purpose on grounds of public safety—that was the main point with which he was concerned—would not be justified; and, in any case, legislation, of course, cannot be discussed on the Adjournment—a rule of this House that caused me pangs of frustration during the last six years when I was sitting on the benches opposite.

For the same reason, it is not possible to discuss whether the alleged abuses in Southampton could be prevented by amendment of the Hackney Carriage Acts, as, for instance, to increase the penalties for plying for hire without cab licences. This might go some way to meet the present difficulties, but the hon. Gentleman will agree, I think, that it is by no means a complete solution. The objections raised to private hire cars are based not only on the fact that some actually disregard the law prohibiting plying for hire, but on the general ground that this type of public service vehicle ought not to remain wholly unregulated.

The question of amendment of the Hackney Carriage Acts is at present be- ing considered by a Working Party of officials and trade representatives who are at this moment examining the law in London and will be ready to turn to the position in the provinces about the beginning of next year.

There has been considerable discussion about the definition of the term "plying for hire." There is no statutory definition but a good deal of case law on the subject. The working party have not so far thought it necessary to deal with the question of controlling private hire cars, but I think it may well be that they will find it necessary to do so when they consider the provincial law, since the problem of the private hire car appears to be much more important in the provinces, as exemplified by the difficulties which have arisen in Southampton, as described to us this evening by the hon. Gentleman.

The complaint that private hire cars imitate the official signs of a taxi was the subject of a letter from the Town Clerk of Southampton to the Home Office, I find, as long ago as 22nd April, 1948—three and a half years ago—and, after consultation with the Ministry of Transport, the Town Clerk was informed that the exhibition of signs would not be an offence under the existing law provided such signs were not illuminated in red—perhaps a strange proviso for a Socialist Minister—were not visible to the rear of the vehicle and conformed otherwise with the provisions of the Road Traffic (Lighting) Act, 1927, and subsequent regulations made thereunder.

The suggestion that private hire cars can cruise and loiter about, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, is not accurate. The object of cruising and loitering is to pick up fares, and it is an offence for a private hire car to ply for hire. It is quite true that private hire cars are not bound by any official scale of charges. It is, of course, for the passenger to agree the price with the proprietor before embarking upon his journey. It is true also, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, that the maximum penalty for plying for hire without a licence is £2, but an increase of this penalty would again involve legislation, which we cannot now discuss. The Working Party of officials and representatives is, as I have already informed the House, examining the possible amendment of the law in London, and will soon turn to the position in the Pro- vinces, when they will certainly have to consider the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.

The suggestion that hackney drivers' licences should be refused to men who have been pirates, for instance, does not require any legislation. The local authority has absolute discretion in the granting or withholding of these licences, which are renewable annually. The suggestion that imitation markings should be prohibited might, it appears, be carried out under the Road Traffic (Lighting) Act, 1927, but the view taken hitherto by the Minister has been that action under that Act for this purpose would be inappropriate.

If I may sum up in the two minutes remaining, under the existing law private hire cars which generally seat less than eight persons do not require public service vehicle licences, nor do they require a hackney carriage licence unless they ply for hire, and they are therefore subject to no special licensing control.

As regards the suggestion that the matter should be discussed with repre- sentatives of the taxicab industry, the Working Party is already in existence, and I have no doubt that they will consider the representations of the hon. Gentleman. It is, however, most desirable that the public should realise that it is an offence for anyone except a licensed cab driver in a licensed cab to ply for hire, and I trust that this brief debate will be of some value in giving the matter the necessary publicity. The remedy under the existing law lies in the hands of those who use cabs and private hire vehicles, and if they find that the law is being infringed they should report the matter to the police. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman has rendered a service in raising the matter tonight.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I rise, Mr. Speaker, for the purpose of congratulating my hon. and gallant Friend on his maiden speech at the Box. I think that he did very well indeed.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o 'Clock.