HC Deb 05 April 1963 vol 675 cc876-86

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

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

Once again I rise to draw attention to the problem of the London taxi service. Once again I shall be told by representatives of the taxi owners and drivers that all is well, and that the present number of cabs and drivers provides London with a satisfactory public service. Again, no doubt, the representative of the Home Office will say that while the Home Office lays down rules and regulations regarding taxicabs and their drivers, it is not the duty of the Home Secretary to provide cabs or to see that an adequate number of cabs is provided.

I am not sure whether in this matter the Home Secretary has responsibility without power, or power without responsibility. As the late Lord Baldwin made very clear, neither is a very nice thing to have. As my hon. Friend's predecessor in office put it when I first raised the subject of London's taxi service on 9th November, 1960—and I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT of that date: I think that he"— Myself— realises that there is no way in which the Home Secretary can actively promote an increase in the number of taxicabs, and I am sure that he would agree that this should be decided by the taw of supply and demand."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1960; Vol. 629, c. 1185.] That sounds all very nice and sensible, but there is, I think, a flaw in that argument. The trouble is that the demand is most certainly there but not the supply. The demand is really terrific, and even in the off-peak periods the supply of taxicabs is not adequate to meet it.

Why is this so? I certainly do not put the blame on the existing taxicab drivers or their owners, with their limited number of vehicles. Although this is a motoring age, the fact is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, fewer licensed taxicabs in London today than there were 30 years ago. But with its limited numbers the taxi trade does its best, and it really provides a remarkable service. However, for a great metropolitan city, a great capital city, the service today is really just not good enough. Certainly the service is not good enough to encourage private car owners not to use their cars in central London. Yet, surely, that should today be one of the prime aims of the Government. As long as people have to move about and so long as there is a shortage of taxicabs, and so long as it is impossible to be sure of being able to hail a taxicab at short notice, the public obviously will continue to use their private cars.

Once again I suggest that the main reason for the shortage of taxicabs in London today is that the law on the subject is completely out of date and the rules and regulations governing the size of the cabs and the type of vehicles to be used and concerning the driver's knowledge—although I admit that some of these rules and regulations have recently be amended—are far too severe.

I suggest that the requirements are out of date and outmoded. Why, for instance, does the London taxicab, unlike taxicabs in other provincial cities, have to have a chassis? Why does it have to be constructed in this particular manner when so many modern cars do not have chassis? Why, too, must the London taxicab be so constructed that every passenger sitting in the back seat must be able to sit there wearing a top hat? Surely that is a ridiculous requirement in this day and age, and yet, I believe, that is the effect of the rules and regulations, that the height of the taxicab must be sufficient to enable a top hat to be worn.

I suggest that one of the main reasons why there is a shortage of taxicabs in London and why London is not getting the service which it deserves is largely, but not entirely, the fault of the Home Office. London is not getting a decent taxi service because Bumbledom is at the wheel, because of the fuddy-duddy requirements of the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police. The Home Office may not be acting as the fifth wheel to the coach in this matter, but it is certainly acting as the fifth wheel to the London cab.

I am sure that when my hon. Friend replies he will agree, as, indeed, the various official committees and working parties have agreed, that it is high time that we had a revision of the hackney carriage law which dates back to, I think, the year 1869. It is high time that some of the more silly rules and regulations disappeared. It is, for instance, absurd, although it may have been all right in the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, that taxis need not today take passengers more than six miles. The result is that there are unseemly arguments with distinguished foreigners such as occurred when President Kennedy's brother arrived at London Airport. Such arguments occur also at many other places and on many other occasions.

I quite understand that the Home Office may say that these rules and regulations are designed for the sole purpose of safeguarding the public. I believe that in this matter the Home Office is out of touch with reality. For better or for worse, Colonel Blimp is dead and I just do not believe that the majority of the London public want or need to be safeguarded to the extent that the Home Office appears to think necessary. By all means in this free country let those who want to do so continue to ride about in a taxi capable of taking six passengers and constructed like an armoured car, and they can wear their top hats if they like. They can also continue to have a driver with a really encyclopaedic knowledge of the streets of London. In that case they will have to pay for it. I think that the London taxi trade is perfectly entitled to ask for an increase in fares.

On the other hand, I know that there are literally millions, because the figures speak for themselves, who are prepared to make do with a smaller, cheaper vehicle and to employ them. So let us have the freedom to choose the simpler vehicles, whether they be minicabs or whether they be of a kind of motorised rickshaw in which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) and I drove to the House this morning. Other capital cities use this form of transport and I cannot see why it should be denied by law to the public in London.

I should like to end my remarks on this subject of London's taxi service as I began them on the last occasion that I raised the subject, by paying tribute to London's taximen. I repeat and make it abundantly clear that I am not criticising the London taximen. They are some of the best drivers in the world. Their knowledge of London is quite fantastic. They operate under difficult conditions. My only complaint is that there are not enough of them. It is my hope and belief that the alteration of the hackney carriage law and some of the Home Office rules and regulations would make the taximen's life easier and would make life for most of London easier too. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to give us some indication of an improvement in the rules and regulations in an attempt to see whether we can bring the taxi trade in London up to the requirements of a large modern city.

4.13 p.m.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

I wish to intervene for only a minute or two. First, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) on his constant interest in this subject. We do not always agree about what should be done, but I think that we can both agree that this is a matter of urgency which ought to be attended to. My hon. Friend said that the law was out of date. In that I could not agree with him more strongly, but recently, when I introduced a Bill the title of which would have permitted any amendment whatsoever to the law in this connection, he did his best to oppose it, although the Bill in fact received on the Motion for leave to bring it in the approval of a majority of about two-thirds of those who voted.

My hon. Friend referred to the limitations of the number of cabs. I agree with him that every Member of Parliament, and indeed everyone who uses taxis in London, is undoubtedly aware that there are times when there are not as many taxis on the streets as we would like to see. I am not sure that it is altogether right to put this down to the number of cabs which are licensed and to suggest, as my hon. Friend rather did, that this is the responsibility of the Home Office.

So far as I am aware, the Home Office would be glad to see more cabs licensed. The trouble is that there are not enough licensed because the trade itself is in an unsatisfactory condition. I do not think that what I might call "tinkering about" with the regulations dealing with the cabs, important though they may be, would solve the problem. The cost of a taxi rank is attributable to many factors, the pay of the men, the cost of the fuel, the initial cost of the cab and, more particularly, the speed of depreciation. I think my hon. Friend will find, making any calculation he cares to make, that, whatever the regulations provided in the way of relaxation as to the kind of cab which should be used, that would not itself make a great difference. What we need is a much more fundamental change in the law.

I appreciate that if I tried to touch on that in an Adjournment debate I should be out of order. I merely make the point that the law needs reform. I have suggested certain particulars and I do not want to be dogmatic. I think there are other matters which need attention besides those in the Bill which I introduced. The matter requires complete overhaul. I support my hon. Friend in urging on the Home Office that this is a matter of urgency which cannot be allowed to drift on with nothing happening about it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to make a forthcoming answer within the limits of what is in order in such a debate as this.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir), who has been so pertinacious in bringing this matter forward year by year. The time has arrived when we should have more flexibility in the type of vehicles running on the roads. It is ridiculous to have 2 tons of metal to carry 1½ cwt. of human flesh.

When I was in Tokyo a short time ago I noticed that there were three types of taxi. There was the four-seater, the two-seater, and the rickshaw type pulled by a scooter. I do not think that we should go down to the rickshaw in a great capital city such as this, but we could have a four-seater cab and two-seater minicab. We know enough now to be able to make vehicles strong enough to carry two people about, and often only two persons wish to use a cab. Regulations could be made to meet the requirements for both these types of taxi. In London in future we could have the two-seater and the four-seater cab.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

It is agreed that we have a problem. It seems that one way of beginning to tackle it would be for the Home Office to enter into consultations with the representatives of the taxicab trade, the trade unions, the cab owners and all who have a working interest in the matter. I am sure that if some such consultation were initiated and suitable action taken by agreement, an improvement could be effected in the situation.

Mr. Speir

Does the hon. Member want another Dr. Beeching?

4.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) and others who have spoken in the debate have raised a number of interesting points to which I shall try to reply individually so far as time allows.

I should like first to say something about what I consider to be the underlying principle by which my hon. Friend's argument was motivated, because I think it important to get this clear. As I understood him, he was seeking to regard the Home Office as responsible, not only for the conditions under which taxis should operate, but, at any rate by implication, for a more active role in taking positive steps to ensure that there should be an adequate supply of taxis in the Metropolis.

I think it right to emphasise, in order not to mislead the House, that this is not at present the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. I think there are only two ways in which my hon. Friend's desire could be met. One would be that of expressly extending the Home Office's responsibilities by legislation, and the other would be by measures within the existing powers of the Home Office—in other words, a relaxation of the criteria which my right hon. Friend imposes.

To take the first point, it seems to me that in order to have a much wider control over the conduct of the taxi trade, which my hon. Friend apparently wishes, it would be necessary for the Government in effect to take over the trade or to arrange for its transfer to some public body; because, so far as we can see, there is no halfway house between leaving the service to be provided by private enterprise with the kind of negative controls which we at present exercise, and the direct operation of the trade by a Government agency. I think it only right to make it clear that my right hon. Friend would have no intention at all of embarking on that course.

My hon. Friend argues that it is not necessary to extend the legislation but only to bring it up to date. In answer to this point, it would be only courteous of me to clarify the necessarily rather abbreviated reply which I gave to his Question on 7th February when he suggested that the insufficiency of the London taxi service was due to the rules and regulations. By this I have no doubt he meant the statutory provisions to which he referred today and which were, as he pointed out, enacted in the last century.

It is true that the principal statute, the Act of 1869, goes back to the time of the hansom cab, but it was a very widely-drawn Act and its provisions are not in themselves inapplicable to modern conditions, and they do not in themselves in any way impair the efficiency of the taxi service or impede its expansion. What the Act did was to empower the Home Secretary, who has delegated the powers to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, to license taxicabs and taxicab drivers in the Metropolitan area. This Act was supplemented by the Act of 1907 empowering the Home Secretary to fix the fares, and, in addition, by a number of other Acts of various dates, into which I need not go, to regulate various details of the conduct of the trade.

While I concede that there may be something to be said for consolidating these provisions for convenience if and when Parliamentary opportunity offers, it does not seem to me that in substance they are unsuited to the requirements of today's taxi service, with one very important qualification to which my hon. Friend referred. This is the rule known as the six-mile limit, which I need not define in detail. We recognise the validity of the number of complaints by the public about the effects of this limit. We also recognise, as we are bound to do, the difficulties which a change in this rule inevitably presents from the point of view of the cab drivers, for whom it would mean a loss of money which they can earn.

The Government understand these difficulties, but we are hopeful that a way may be found which would enable the law on this point to be brought more into line with the requirements of modern life in the Metropolis, if not with the agreement of the drivers at any rate with their acquiescence. I hope that I need say nothing more on this point. In part it touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) about consultations with the proprietors in the trade, which is very much in our minds.

Mr. Lipton

Are they going on at the moment?

Mr. Woodhouse

I would rather not say any more about them.

This point does not bear on the numbers or the efficiency of the taxi service. The main points at which authority impinges on the control of the service are in licensing the vehicles and the drivers. We do this because, although the taxi service is a commercial enterprise, it is also a public service, and it is essential that certain standards should be imposed on it, as they are under the 1869 Act. Regarding the conditions governing the construction of vehicles, as no doubt my hon. Friend knows, an independent Committee examined this matter last year. Its recommendations were accepted by the Deputy Commissioner and brought into force on 1st January this year. I can assure my hon. Friend that they contain no reference to gentlemen wearing top hats; though they do prescribe dimensions in the interior of the cab which may, or may not, enable a gentleman to wear a top hat inside the vehicle. But they are not designed solely for that purpose.

Similarly regarding the requirement about a knowledge of London by taxi drivers. I think it important that people who hire cabs in London and have confidence in them, should have some assurance that they will be conveyed to their destination by the most direct route. Some hon. Members besides myself may have had experience of a Middle Eastern capital during the war where it was universally known that the only two addresses known by taxi drivers were Shepheards Hotel and the headquarters of the British Secret Service. I am sure that we do not want a service of that kind, and there is no doubt that the London taxi service in this respect sets a standard which is envied in other capitals. I think that is a standard which we should try to maintain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) referred to the possibility of introducing two-seater cabs, or mini-cabs or even rickshaws. I wish to make clear that there is nothing in the present conditions of fitness to prevent the use of a smaller vehicle. I would rather not elaborate this point which was brought out by my right hon. Friend, the then Minister of State, in two Adjournment debates in which he went into the matter in some detail. The independent Committee to which I have referred examined the possibility of a two-seater cab or a light taxicab and reported that it was not impressed by the evidence that such a vehicle could be operated economically in the conditions prevailing in London. As there is a copy of the Committee's report in the Library, I will not weary the House with the details. But I repeat that there is nothing in the conditions of fitness to prevent the use of such a vehicle.

Rickshaws and small private hire vehicles would be quite another matter because neither would conform, nor could be made to conform in present conditions, with the requirements of fitness for operating conditions in London. The Government stand by the revised conditions of fitness which came into effect on 1st January and do not regard the present as appropriate to attempt any review or revision of them. I think this also deals with the point regarding mini-cabs—a term which is now rather inaccurate, but which I take to refer to vehicles operating not as taxis but as private hire cars.

I have dealt, somewhat briefly, with the numerous points raised in this debate in so far as they concern the Home Office. I should like to say to my hon. Friend that a number of points raised in this and previous debates on the same subject, are, strictly speaking, not concerned with matters directed by the Home Office. I have in mind, for instance, points which my hon. Friend has raised about the need for more taxis at peak hours or the question of increased fares to make the operating of taxis more economic, and a number of other such points.

It is difficult to get more taxis on the road at peak hours and at the same time run an economic service, because it would mean that at other than peak hours there would be large numbers of taxis standing idle. Increasing fares is a matter for the Home Secretary but only on the initiative of the trade. If it seeks an increase on the present fares, which were fixed in 1958, there is no reason why such a fresh approach should not be made.

I do not think that there is any need for despondency about the taxi trade in London today. It is perfectly true that there are fewer taxis on the road than there were before the war, but it is equally true that there has been a steadily growing number of taxis on the road since the war.

Mr. Lipton

And more private cars.

Mr. Woodhouse

That is also true, though not exactly relevant to the point.

At the end of last year the number of taxis on the road was 6,800, compared with 5,400 ten years ago, and there has been a steady growth during that period. The number of drivers over the same period has grown from 9,000 to 10,400. It certainly does not seem to be the case that the test of knowledge of London applied by the Deputy-Commissioner is unduly restrictive, because most of the applicants for licences succeed in passing it. All signs at present point to the likelihood of a continuing gradual rise, although I should not like to make any firm prediction. The authorities—the Home Office and the police—set no limit on the number of vehicles, except that the drivers and the vehicles must satisfy the conditions which I have mentioned.

The construction requirements have recently been reviewed, and they certainly will not be reviewed again in the immediate future. I do not think that my right hon. Friend can be expected to accept the suggested encouragement of an increase in the number of drivers at the expense of a substantial reduction in their knowledge of London. It is one of the essential features of the taxi service that taxis should be robust and efficient and that the drivers should be competent. I am sure that it would be a mistake deliberately to worsen the excellent service which taxis and drivers give in this respect.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.