HC Deb 04 August 1965 vol 717 cc1841-50

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

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)

It seems amazing that the six-mile taximeter limit, which was introduced in the last century with the express intention of stopping cab horses from exploitation, is still in existence, particularly as cab horses now seem to have departed from the scene.

I am sure that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who, very kindly, is to answer the debate, will agree that this limit is now very much out of date. Indeed, since the introduction of the internal combustion engine and the expansion of mechanised transport, London has grown considerably in size, and its communications are vital. A six-mile limit in the Metropolis now, particularly with the suburbs as they have developed, is totally inadequate.

All of us have occasion from time to time to use London taxis, and, on the whole, it can be fairly said that the service is a reliable one with very high standards. The hon. Gentleman's Department has gone to great trouble to maintain this high standard, as have the Metropolitan Police. The safety and quality of the cabs and the training of drivers are vital factors, as are maintenance and the general standards observed.

I have found that most drivers are reliable and friendly, and my comments tonight are not meant as a criticism of the trade as a whole. I am thinking, rather, of the small proportion of drivers who get it a bad name by trying to exploit the six-mile limit and—I must add this in fairness—of the snail-like pace of the hon. Gentleman's Department in tackling what is known to be a matter of some controversy, taking the whole of this Parliamentary year so far to arrive at a conclusion.

I exonerate the hon. Gentleman himself from any criticism in this matter, because I know that he is personally very keen to solve it. I only wish that his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary had pressed on with it more strongly some months ago. I say much the same about the representatives of the cab drivers and owners who have been to the Home Office on several occasions and tried to reach agreement on the sort of change which is needed. I hope that, perhaps, as a result of this Adjournment debate, they may soon bring their deliberations to a conclusion.

During the course of this parliamentary year, I have asked a series of Questions on the matter, and each time I have received what is known in ministerial jargon as a holding reply. The last one—the hon. Gentleman must be sick of having these Questions tabled to him—came on Thursday, 9th July, when, in a Written Answer, the hon. Gentleman said: Discussions are continuing with the cab trade on a suitable fares structure, but I cannot say when it will be possible for legislation to be introduced. In a further Answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) on the same day, he said: The object … is to arrive at a suitable basis for the statutory control of fares for all journeys within the Metropolitan Police District."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th July, 1965; Vol. 716, c. 284.] Perhaps I ought to declare a minor interest in this matter. I have a small financial connection with a company which is indirectly concerned with the taxicab trade; but this matter is a long way removed from that, and my interest stems from entirely different motives. I have raised this question in the past and, no doubt, I shall have to raise it again because, like all members of the public, I use taxicabs from time to time, and many of my constituents are seriously affected by the problem.

From the inquiries I have made, I have formed the opinion that there is a general desire on the part of the public for the limit to be extended, and I am sure that many cab owners and drivers take the same view. I have made a point of conducting my own public opinion poll among all taxi drivers I have encountered, and, so far, I have found a distinct majority in favour of change, albeit that they cannot entirely agree on what they want.

The most significant aspect of the necessary change would affect conditions at London Airport. It would stop the squalid exploitation which goes on of a number of passengers arriving at the airport, particularly foreigners coming here for the first time. A small number of unscrupulous drivers get this country a bad name by haggling with strangers—sometimes people who can barely speak English—when they arrive. To use a colloquialism, they really "take them for a ride". I have heard of very unpleasant scenes when drivers arriving with their passengers in the centre of London have demanded £5 or even as much as £10 and have got it because people pay up to save embarrassment.

I conducted an experiment today. I chartered a taxi outside the Palace of Westminster, and I was told by the driver that he wanted £2 10s. to take me to London Airport. I thought that this was rather steep, and asked if he could reduce it. He said that he could not because he would have to make the return journey back from London Airport without a fare, although I reminded him that, once he came within the six-mile limit, round about Hammersmith, he would have a very good opportunity of picking up another fare. However, we agreed, and I went out to London Airport.

I met a number of taxi drivers there who were lining up waiting for passengers. I think that one or two of them were a little hostile when they recognised me and realised what I was about, but, on the whole, a large number did agree with me that there was a problem which needed to be settled. I was appalled to find that there were large numbers of pirate taxi drivers, not drivers licensed by the hon. Gentleman's Department or by the Metropolitan Police, but those who clearly take their cars there and tout around for custom in the exit halls. I am told that there are as many as 100 incidents a day of people who are being taken away, I should have thought illegally, and charged the earth for their journey. I blame the airport authorities for this; it could have been stamped out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Box), a neighbour of the Joint Under-Secretary, told me only this evening of a woman friend of his family who arrived at London Airport only three weeks ago, got into a taxi with her luggage and was told by the driver that the cost would be £3 10s. When she said that she thought that it was extortionate, she was told by the driver that she could take it or leave it. She thereupon took out her cases and carried them over to the airport bus, to the jeers of some of the assembled taxi drivers. Again, this is an extraordinary business and is something which should be stopped. I believe that my hon. Friend wrote to the Minister of Aviation about this incident.

I know that the Joint Under-Secretary is not responsible for what goes on at London Airport, but I urge him to have consultations with his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to see whether a new system could be devised. Many of these cabs which ply for hire at London Airport are licensed by the Metropolitan Police. I have also had complaints, not merely concerning London Airport, but from constituents of mine in Chiswick who, for some reason or other, have had to take a taxi from one of the London termini to Chiswick, which is not all that far, and have faced bills of between 30s. and £2 as a result.

My solution to the problem—I realise that it may not be acceptable to the Home Office—is that the meter limit should be extended to 12 miles and that anything after that distance should be charged at double fare. I know that London Airport is more than 12 miles from the centre of London, but this is a special case and there could be an agreed tariff which could be prominently displayed at the airport and which could be the subject of airport police enforcement. Perhaps even a special licence to ply for hire at the airport could be introduced, the licence coming from the hon. Gentleman's Department.

It has been suggested in some quarters that under new regulations which might be introduced double fare might be charged after six miles. At least, this would be an improvement on the present situation, but I still consider that a limit of six miles is unrealistic in this day and age. Drivers to whom I have spoken about this tell me that they should not be under any obligation to undertake fares over six miles. They may well have a good case on this, particularly sometimes when they are on return journeys going home.

I should have thought that, once the regulations are changed—and I hope very much that in due course they will be—action could be taken against any man who refused a fare and was then caught trying to extract money from any person, saying, "I cannot do it for the set rate. If you pay me a little extra, I might be able to think about it", so that these people would be severely penalised.

From studying the facts, I am left with the view that the Home Office really must act quickly, because this matter has dragged on for a long time. It is in the public interest that the meter limit should be changed. It is in the genuine interest of the owners and the drivers of cabs. It is certainly time that this un-savoury Eastern market-type trading which goes on at London Airport and other public places was ended once and for all.

I am told by my hon. Friends who have done a lot of travelling on the Continent of Europe that this practice certainly does not happen at continental airports. It certainly should not happen here. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will quickly take action.

11.3 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Dudley Smith) on the pertinacity that he has shown concerning this question. He has been a campaigner ever since I have held this office, and I know that he was before. He is, of course, quite right to remind us that the question of the taxicab service in the great metropolitan city in which we find ourselves is a matter of public concern.

Before dealing with the points that the hon. Member has raised, I hope that he will not mind if I reject his charge that we have moved at a snail-like pace. This problem did not begin in October last. It was part of the legacy which we inherited on taking office and about which we have talked so much during recent days. That is the lighter side, but it is a problem. Until last autumn, it was an intractable problem. It was quite impossible to get the trade, which is an involved one with drivers, journeymen-drivers and owners all having their separate interests, together to discuss the problems which worry us all.

I want to say at once that I share the indignation of the hon. Gentleman at that minority of taxicab drivers who hold the public to ransom whenever it gets the chance. I was horrified at the story which the hon. Gentleman told us had been recounted to him by my own Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Box), of the lady who was jeered at by other taxi drivers when she went to the bus. Making people feel small if they do not agree to pay the extortionate charges which some taxi drivers demand is something that the rest of the trade, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, finds reprehensible. The majority of drivers know that it is damaging to them.

The law at present is that a taxi driver must accept a hiring for any journey within the Metropolitan Police District and the City of London of up to six miles or one hour in duration. That obligation applies whether the driver is standing or plying for hire. The High Court ruled in 1947 that a fare scale prescribed by the Secretary of State by Statutory Instrument applied only to journeys of up to six miles, so that, under the present law, a taxi driver is entirely within his rights to demand what he likes for any journey over six miles, if he undertakes to do it.

The driver can refuse to go beyond the six miles, but if he agrees to do it; it is a matter for what is euphemistically called an arrangement between the passenger and the taxi driver. A notice to that effect is displayed in the passenger compartment of all our taxis. It is fair to say that there has been growing public opinion against the six-mile limit, which is now regarded as thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is true, also, that it dates back to the days of the horse-drawn cab.

Instances have been given to us tonight by the hon. Gentleman of fares of up to £10 being asked for journeys to or from London Airport. I want to link myself with the criticisms which the hon. Gentleman has made about those abuses. The tourist industry and the airways companies have been urging a change in the law in order that the position should be rectified. The recent strike at B.E.A. which paralysed normal forms of transport presented an opportunity for exploitation when a monopoly position was created. It is intolerable that the British public and foreigners visiting our country should be held to ransom. It is a disgraceful situation which makes a speedy solution urgently necessary.

We have not been dragging our feet. Since last year confidential discussions have been entered into with the trade. As they are confidential I know that the House would not expect me to reveal in detail the views of the several constituent parts of the taxicab trade, but I can tell the House that we have now reached the stage where all sides of the trade recognise that the six-mile limit of controlled fares is unsatisfactory in modern conditions, and are anxious that the good name of the trade should not continue to suffer through practices indulged in by a minority.

The Home Office believes that it is desirable to introduce control over the fares for all journeys of whatever length within the Metropolitan Police District, and I believe that I am right in saying that the trade now also accepts this in principle. But it is one thing to accept it in principle. It is another thing to get agreement on details.

I mentioned that there are a number of organisations within the trade, each with its own legitimate interests, and we believe that it would not be fair to the trade to regulate the fares for journeys of any length within the Metropolitan Police District on the basis of the present tariff which applies only for the shorter journeys, namely, those of up to six miles, or one hour in duration.

We have to remember that the further from the centre of London the taxi driver goes, the less likely he is—as the hon. Gentleman's taxi driver told him today—of getting a return fare back into the area where most of the demand for taxis exists. To enable the trade to provide a service for the longer distance hiring without financial loss or resultant impairment of the standard of service, as a first step we must devise a suitable fare structure under which a somewhat higher tariff would apply for the longer journeys.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Will that mean a slightly higher tariff within the present six-mile limit?

Mr. Thomas

No. It would be for the longer journeys. I do not know what amendments will need to be made to the tariff which exists for the six-miles, but it is not part of the case for dealing with the problem of the longer journeys.

I am pleased to tell the House that we believe that a solution is not far off. I feel, in particular, that the drivers' representatives realise that a solution could only encourage public confidence in the trade; a confidence which, in its turn, would have a beneficial effect on their business, but one of our major difficulties is that all London cabs are required to be fitted with taximeters so constructed as to be capable of recording the prescribed fare for journeys up to six miles, and, clearly, it is desirable that any revised tariff that may be authorised in the future for longer journeys should also automatically be recorded on the meter.

It is important for the relationship between the passenger and the driver that they should both have recorded for them what the charge should be, but the meters available at present are capable of recording reliably only two tariffs, the basic one, and another exactly double the first, and this higher tariff would come into operation at a pre-determined point, calculated by time and distance combined for any journey.

It is not possible to record a more sophisticated graduated tariff, rising in stages throughout the journey. This could be achieved only by a completely new meter whose development would take a good deal of time, be costly, and perhaps quite uneconomical. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House will recognise at once the implications of this for the preparation of a new scheme of taxi fares. We have to decide on a tariff which is fair both to the public and to the trade. It must also be capable of being accurately and automatically recorded on the taximeter; but, in so doing, our choice is virtually limited to the point of distance at which to introduce a tariff double the basic one.

The hon. Gentleman suggests 12 miles instead of six, but that is not a suggestion we can readily accept; and I will try to explain why. It would result in a considerable reduction in drivers' incomes. The journey to London Airport would then be well below the recommended rates which, I think, are £2 10s. or £2 15s. and it would be very hard to justify such a drastic step. These factors are not easy to reconcile, but we believe that it can be done, and done in the reasonably near future—that is, in a matter of months.

If fares for all journeys were prescribed by law at a level which would enable the driver to have a fair return, it might be unnecessary to vary the present compulsory distances. An extension to 16 miles, which, I understand, is the distance between Central London and London Airport, could be justified only if the most exceptional circumstances were present, but I hope—although I can put it no higher—that a suitable scheme can be devised in the next few months. It will not be for lack of effort on our part if it is not. Present arrangements are under an Act of Parliament, and fresh legislation would be needed to alter them, and the trade is in no doubt about our determination to bring to an end the present system whereby people, and particularly strangers, are being put in an embarrassing position and often exploited by overcharging.

The hon. Gentleman referred to certain practices at London Airport which, I am pleased to say, come under the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation rather than that of the Home Office. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is concerned about the question of the pirate taxicabs, which are a matter for him. I can go no further at present than to say that he is tackling this problem. This is not merely a question of regulations. It is a matter which would have to result in legislation, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that his determination to see a change in the present taxicab rules in London is shared by the Government. We must, however, reach this change by agreement or, at least, we hope to reach it by agreement.

It certainly looks now as if we shall soon be in a position in which the drivers, the journeyman drivers, the owners and the Government are all agreed on steps which will remove what is an unpleasant blot upon a public service, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, has served our people so well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Eleven o'clock.