HC Deb 17 June 1952 vol 502 cc1161-8

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

11.34 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Field (Paddington, North)

The subject which I wish to raise tonight is the decrease in the number of taxicabs in London and the increase in the proportion of drivers to man those cabs. Claims for the limitation of taxicab drivers in London have been made for many years, even before the last war. In those days, drivers had to work some 60 or 70 hours a week to earn sufficient money to live; and, indeed, in those days, some 60 per cent. of the total mileage travelled by drivers was with empty cabs. After the last war, the claim was renewed to prevent a recurrence of the conditions obtaining before the war. The trade union concerned was willing to consider the limitation of drivers but, to be fair to the proprietors, it was prepared to limit the number of cabs.

The present position is that the limitation of cabs has come about quite fortuitously, through present economic conditions. The number of drivers to man those cabs remains the same, and the difficulties of the drivers are increasing daily. Many of the larger garages in the Metropolis are going on to a rota system which forces drivers to take compulsory rest days. As the number of cabs is getting less so the number of these enforced rest days is likely to increase, and, of course, the time in which the drivers can earn money will become less and their position will get more acute.

I realise, as do the drivers, that the foremost consideration in this problem must be the public interest. At the same time. I am sure that all people who use these vehicles would desire that the drivers who drive them should have a decent living standard. It by no means follows that an excess of cabs or an excess of drivers, or of both, means that the public are provided with a better service. It may be that each cab does less work with a longer wait between trips.

For instance, 12 cabs on a rank may be doing the work that could be done by six with a shorter wait between journeys, and there are certainly no signs at present that the public are not well served by the number of cabs on the road at the moment. It is my opinion that the number of cabs in the Metropolis would have to fall very appreciably still before the public interest became affected.

There has been a great deal of pressure brought to bear upon the Home Office and the last Home Secretary to deal with this problem. As a result, my right hon. Friend referred the matter to a working party with a request that it should urgently consider it and report as soon as possible. I understand that the working party recommended that there should be a limitation both of the number of drivers and of the number of cabs in the Metropolis, and I believe that the numbers recommended were 7,000 cabs and 9,200 drivers.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office will confirm whether those figures are correct. Since the working party considered the matter and reported on it the number of cabs in the London area has been falling still further. The latest figure I have been able to obtain, that for 30th May, is the figure of 5,808 cabs, and there is every indication that this number is falling week by week.

The reasons for the fall in the number of cabs are not, of course, far to see. First of all, the price of new cabs has gone up enormously since the war, and today stands at around £1,500. This means, of course, that the proprietors have their troubles, too. Not only has the cost of cabs gone up, but also the cost of servicing, repairs, tyres and replacements. At present, the hire purchase regulations make a big cash outlay inevitable when the proprietors want to replace their cabs.

Then, of course, there is the latest addition in the price of petrol. When the House discussed this matter recently the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said he would give careful and sympathetic consideration to a proposal made by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) that there should be a partial rebate on the petrol duty paid by the taxicab trade. I do not know whether any decision has been reached by the Treasury yet, but it is an indication that the Treasury was cognisant of the difficulties that the cab trade was experiencing.

On top of that, many cabs are approaching the end of their useful life, and under present conditions the proprietors do not feel like replacing them. Economic conditions are against them. Thus, the number of cabs in the Metropolis is falling and the proportion of drivers to cabs is increasing. The latest figures are 5,808 cabs to 9,228 drivers. That is more than 1,000 cabs fewer than the working party recommended and almost exactly the same number of drivers.

It is not generally realised that the cab drivers work on a commission basis only. They get no money for reporting for duty. If the cab is not available—if, for instance, it is under repair—they earn nothing. They get nothing extra for night work and they get no overtime. They have to provide from their normal earnings for all the eventualities that might befall them, as well as for their holidays.

The House will realise that the cab trade is very quickly affected by adverse economic conditions. When personal economies have to be made, then taxis are possibly the first things to go. Thus, in present conditions, with two rises in taxi fares in recent months, the taxi trade is feeling the adverse conditions very much. There is also an effect on the tips the drivers receive.

I submit that the plight of the taxi drivers is getting worse. Under existing conditions there can be no fear that the number of cabs in the Metropolis will not adequately deal with the present public demand. The number of cabs and customers is limited by economic conditions, and that means that all new drivers coming into the trade merely share out the limited custom and each one gets less. I strongly suspect that the Ministry of Labour would soon find useful and possibly important work for any aspirants intending to enter the trade who might be turned away by any action that the Home Office might take by virtue of these representations.

This evening I am not concerned with the particular methods that the Home Office may adopt to limit the number of drivers in the Metropolis. I merely contend that the present position for drivers is very precarious and soon may become desperate. I submit that it is the duty of the Home Office to order a standstill on the number of entrants into the cab trade.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

I would add a few words in support of the case so very ably made by the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Field). I have in my constituency a considerable number of cab drivers who feel that the fact that no limit has yet been imposed is a real denial of justice. This is really an old problem, but it has become particularly acute in the days following the war. Unless something is done to deal with the problem it must become still more acute.

There are two points I wish to emphasise. The hon. Member for Paddington, North has pointed out that the number of cabs is steadily diminishing and must continue to do so. That fact is clearly due to economic conditions. A new cab costs in the region of £1,500 and one remembers the enormous increase in overhead expenses, the two tariffs which have been imposed and the price of petrol. It is clear that it is most difficult for anyone to purchase a cab. One sees that the figures have steadily gone down. The result, inevitably, means that cab drivers are going on to short time if not actual unemployment.

Reference has been made to the working party under the auspices of the Home Office. I understand that working party examined the position and expressed the view in favour of a limitation so that there ought to be 9,200 to 7,000 cabs. That was the position in the latter part of 1950. Today, there are 5,800 cabs and still more than 9,200 drivers. If my arithmetic is correct, on the figures of the working party on limitation, there ought not to be more than 7,800 drivers. If matters go on as they are we shall have unemployment and short working hours and drivers will suffer seriously.

I ask the Under-Secretary to say what has happened to the working party. Why have their findings not been carried out in relation to limitation? This is a matter which requires urgent attention.

11.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Field) for raising this subject tonight, because the Government recognise that there is here a real and urgent problem. It might be convenient if I give the House some figures which will illustrate the problem. In March, 1950, there were licensed in London 6,746 cabs. By the following year that number had fallen to 6,516 and by May, 1952, just over a month ago, the number had fallen again to 5,808. That was a fall of not far short of 1,000 cabs in just over two years.

The corresponding figures for drivers are as follow: March, 1950, 8,843; March, 1951, 9,168, May last 9,228, an increase of not far short of 400 drivers. That figure needs the qualification that there has recently been a slight fall. The figure for drivers at the end of December last year was 9,278, so the House will see that in the first four months there has been a fall of 50. Nevertheless, the broad figures show that there has been a marked increase in the ratio of drivers to cabs.

This is not a new problem. The trade union concerned, the Transport and General Workers' Union, have been making representations for many years to Home Secretaries asking them to set a limit on the licensing of drivers in the Metropolitan area. In reply to a Question on 3rd May, 1951, the former Home Secretary said that the Government had come to the conclusion that they would not be justified in present circumstances, and on the information before them in introducing legislation for the purpose of imposing a limit on the number of taxicabs and drivers which might be licensed by the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis. That is a statement with which the present Home Secretary cannot disagree.

The hon. Members who have spoken have asked for particulars about the report of a working party set up by the former Home Secretary. It consisted of civil servants and, therefore, their report was in the nature of internal advice which officials generally give the Government. In accordance with precedent that report has not been published and it would not be right for me to comment on it.

The present Home Secretary recently received a further deputation from the Union and the Home Secretary has been giving very careful consideration to the representations which this deputation made to him. I think it is generally known it was represented that it would be within the power of the Home Secretary at present to set a limit on the number of new drivers, but I must tell the House that the Home Secretary has been unable to satisfy himself that he has that power.

Mr. Weitzman

The Motorcar Order of 1934 is relevant and under that Order the Commissioner of Police has certain discretion. One of the points of discretion he has is in paragraph 27 (1, a) in which he may limit in such a manner as he thinks fit the types of cabs which the licensee may be permitted to drive.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I have little time left in which to reply and I cannot argue the legal point. I do not say that the Home Secretary has no such power, but that he is unable to satisfy himself that he has. It is a doubtful question which could only be settled in the courts. It is undesirable to take action on the footing that he has such power and then for that action to be reversed by the decision of the court. It would require legislation and that being so it would be out of order for me to pursue it now.

The taxicab service is an important service and we recognise that there are real difficulties affecting it at the present time. The solution has so far proved most elusive. No one has been able to formulate a definite plan. In those circumstances the Government have decided to set up a small independent committee to examine the problem. Their terms of reference are to consider the effect of the present fiscal and economic circumstances on the taxicab service, particularly in London and to report what changes, if any, in the present system of taxation are desirable in the public interest. These are wide terms of reference, and will enable the committee to examine this matter thoroughly. It will not be an official working party, as was the committee which has been referred to. It is to be an independent committee; that is to say, it will not consist of officials of the various Departments.

It will be able to consider whether any changes are desirable in the present system of licensing, both of cabs and drivers; and it will be able to look at the particular problem of London against the whole background of the control and organisation of the cab service. The problems which have been mentioned will be those which the committee will consider. The question of limiting the right of entry into any occupation must be one which bristles with controversy, and also with practical difficulties in administration. In the circumstances, it would be better not to go into these questions now, but to leave the matter for consideration by the committee. We shall then know what is the best action which can be taken to meet the difficulties facing the taxicab service.

11.55 p.m.

Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)

Can my hon. Friend say how soon he expects this committee to be appointed, and can he give the names of any of its members? Can he, also, say that the committee will start its work very soon, because he will appreciate that one of the reasons for the decline in numbers is the fact that a cab operating in London at present loses £200 per annum? Therefore, it is a matter of extreme urgency that this committee should be set up and that action should be taken, at the earliest possible moment.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I cannot give names, because the committee has not yet been set up. I hope that it will be set up very soon. The matter will certainly be dealt with as quickly as possible. How long the committee will take over examining the matter I cannot say, but it is the Government's wish that its recommendations shall be forthcoming as soon as they can be.

11.56 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman, or his right hon. and learned Friend, impress on the committee the need for all possible speed, consistent with the job being done properly, because this difficulty has been going on for a long time? As the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Field) pointed out, it has recently become of acute interest to men making a livelihood in this way. I would draw attention to some of the elderly taxicab drivers faced with the problem of making an adequate livelihood, and to whom it would be impossible to suggest entering any other occupation.

While I accept some part of what the hon. Gentleman has said about the difficulties of restricting entry into an occupation, I would point out that at the present we are short of manpower in important parts of the national economy. Why should there be young entrants into this occupation at such a time, and when some of the older occupants are finding it extremely difficult to make a living? I hope that that point will be in the minds of members of the committee, and that they will do their work as speedily as possible.

12 m.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, Southwest)

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to know that it is gratifying to learn that his right hon. and learned Friend has decided to set up this small independent specialised committee. That is a positive step forward after so many years of trying to get this matter satisfactorily settled. It would help if the Parliamentary Secretary could say whether or not the various interests in the trade are to be allowed to make their representations, or perhaps have a representative on this committee. We are rather in the dark as to how this committee will be composed.

The Parliamentary Secretary will, no doubt, we aware that all sections of the trade, proprietors, the men, the unions, and, I believe, the owner drivers, agree with the working party that some scheme of limitation is desirable. I trust that when this committee meets and tries to grapple in a practical way with this problem it will not fail to take into account the views of all sections of the industry.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

In the time that remains I think that the best I can say is that the observations of hon. Gentlemen will be noted, and will no doubt be the first matter to which the committee will turn its attention when it meets.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.