HC Deb 09 June 1967 vol 747 cc1558-66

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher (Ilkeston)

I do not think that the House needs reminding either by me or by any other hon. Member that there is a crisis in the cab trade. Hon. Members are reminded of it very aggressively every time they use a cab to come to the House or to go from the House and there have been two rather aggressive lobbies in recent weeks. It will also be recalled that a few months ago there was one of the most fantastic industrial actions in the history of this country. It was technically described as a co-ordinated rest day, but, in fact, it was the only strike in industrial history in which the employers came out with the employed.

But when the terms of the crisis are presented, as I sometimes have to present them, in official quarters—since I belong to the Transport and General Workers' Union which organises cab drivers—it seems to cut itself down to the most unbearable pedantry. We have spent roughly 12 months arguing about what is the definition of a taxi-cab. This may seem sheer silliness to the House, but it is of tremendous importance to people who drive taxi-cabs, as I hope to show.

The legislation which covers the taxi-cabs in the Metropolitan area goes back to 1831. A good deal of the legislation was conceived long before the internal combustion engine was conceived. The basic legislation dates from 1869, and some of the distances involved are based on the horse.

The main effect of the legislation is to give the Metropolis a cab service which provides fit vehicles and competent drivers. The drivers have to be checked not only as to character and fitness, but also as to driving ability. The fitness of the vehicles is assured by three-monthly inspections as well as by annual overhaul. This very effective control is exercised in the first instance by the Assistant Commissioner of Police, who is responsible to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. This provides a cab service which is not perfect, but which will bear comparison with any other taxi service in any other capital city in the world. This was made apparent when the people of London were deprived of taxi services during the co-ordinated rest day. Because of the absence of taxi services, various newspaper correspondents were compelled to write about the taxi service compared with, say, cabs in Paris and New York. The overwhelming verdict of the Press correspondents was that, in spite of its imperfections, we have the finest cab service and that the efficiency and reliability of the service are due to the structure of our legislation.

Yet grievances are now beginning explosively to emerge. Many of them are being very effectively handled through proper machinery by the Transport and General Workers' Union. I want to deal with only one grievance, which has become more and more so since it first emerged in about 1960.

There are at present about 4,000 so-called mini-cabs operating in the streets of this city. I do not like the term "mini-cabs". I am rather a pedant about language. I think that the adjectival qualification "mini" is being overused in a thousand different contexts. Apart from that, I emphasise that the so-called mini-cabs are not subject to the same strict regulations and controls as the regular taxi service, and that this means that all sorts of violations of the law which gives protection to taxi drivers are now taking place.

The object of the legislation was best indicated in a debate which took place in the House on 7th June, 1961. The then Minister of State, Home Office, said: The Government acknowledge that the taxi service bears a burden in the standards which are required in the construction of vehicles in the interests of the safety and convenience of passengers and the standards of knowledge which are required of drivers, and that, in return, they are entitled to some protection. This protection is provided by the ban which the law imposes on unlicensed vehicles plying for hire."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th June, 1961; Vol. 641, c. 1355.] That was, to coin a phrase, Home Office doctrine in 1961, and as a result of correspondence and conversations with my right hon. Friends in the Home Office I can say that it is Home Office doctrine now.

But what is actually happening far away from the eagle eyes that we have in the Home Office? We find the growing practice of illegal plying for hire to which I referred in the first instance. This is very difficult to detect. Since a minimum number of witnesses are needed to get a prosecution in the courts, it is almost impossible to get an effective prosecution. Good standards are enforced by the law in the case of taxi-cab drivers, but in the case of mini-cab drivers minimum standards are glaringly ignored.

I have a report from the British Safety Council of an investigation conducted by Mr. V. S. Moore, the Chief Examiner of the British Safety Council Master Drivers' Club. He made 23 journeys in London in mini-cabs provided by different mini-cab companies. In 16 instances the standard of driving was deplorably low, regard for passenger comfort was practically non-existent and regard for other users of the road almost totally so. In 11 instances there was suspected steering, badly worn tyres, suspected broken rear springs, inefficient handbrakes, and so on. So an indictment builds up which is, in effect, an indictment that mini-cabs are now beginning to represent a public danger.

But there is also another aspect to which I want to draw attention. My friends in the cab trade have no objection to legitimate private-hire facilities but they claim that the unlicensed, the illegal, competition they are suffering from minicabs is not only a menace to their livelihood and threatens the provision of a properly controlled taxi service in this city, but that, just like the gambling clubs which have grown like mushrooms in recent years, is beginning to draw criminal elements.

If I were in the United States House of Representatives I could read evidence into the Congressional Record which would fill 10 columns of HANSARD here. I shall confine myself to reading one or two pieces of evidence. There is a reference in the Stratford Express of 26th May. It said: Detectives are to keep a special 24-hour watch on two Newham mini-cab firms after threats of 'We'll burn you out'. The threats … are believed to come from competitors waging a mini-cab price war in East London. On 6th June, The Times reported that a prisoner, Edward Murphy, who had given himself up after an escape, told the police that he had been working as a mini-cab driver, office cleaner and fairground worker. I merely wish to emphasise that he had been working as a mini-cab driver.

As my right hon. Friend knows, no criminal of any sort can, under the stringent regulations she has to enforce, conceivably drive a taxi-cab in London. I appreciate that there are some bad apples among taxi-cab drivers. We have heard complaints, for example, about journeys to and from London Airport. But I remind the House of a case, reported in The People, in which a minicab took a fare from Victoria Coach Station to Great Kingshill at an agreed cost of £4 and that the charge in the end was £11 17s. 6d. The Evening News reported another case where a person was charged 17s. 6d. when the proper charge should have been about 8s.

I instance these not as typical of minicab practice but simply to set the record straight in showing that mini-cab people do this kind of thing. It is rarely reported in the national Press, although every misdemeanour of a licensed cab driver is almost invariably reported. But this kind of activity is growing. There was another report to the effect that a girl mini-cab driver had 94 pep pills in Her possession when arrested for a motoring offence.

I have a whole sheaf of cases here, and it is only one of the files in my possession. I have far too much evidence to compress into a 15-minute speech. The central case I make on behalf of the organised cab drivers is, strangely enough, roughly the same case as that made by the former president of a minicab proprietors' association. He gave up in disgust because he was getting nowhere. He himself could not control these minicabs. He said: We hoped for a large membership of companies which would toe the line. But new mini-cab firms are cropping up all over the place—often operating on a shoestring—and so many of them are still running about uninsured. These mini-cab proprietors, or those who wanted to form the association, could not control the situation. The fact that they cannot be controlled has led to mounting anger, to the break away of an organisation from the union which has been quietly and effectively negotiating for changes in legislation, and it might actually lead—and this has been passed to me as a result of unofficial approaches—to a recrudescence of the violence that started in 1960, when the "mini-cab menace", as cab drivers call it, first began to become glaringly apparent.

The union to which I belong, which organises cab drivers, has always taken a responsible attitude towards this problem. It has spent the last two years negotiating very patiently with the Home Office and with my right hon. Friend for effective changes in the law. However, my union cannot ignore the growing anger and impatience any more than it can ignore the existence of the breakaway militant organisation which apparently has no sense of responsibility and is prepared to engage in the most irresponsible form of activity possible—blackguarding and behaving aggressively towards Members of Parliament who alone can make the necessary changes.

For these reasons—and the crisis is growing that the official and responsible organisation is in danger of being by passed—I ask my right hon. Friend and her right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary, to give an assurance that the changes which she knows to be required, and which are in the consultative pipeline, will go through the House as speedily as possible.

4.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Alice Bacon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) has presented his case clearly and persuasively. He has shown great interest in this matter and worked hard, as we all know, on behalf of the London taxi-cab men. I think that they have reason to be grateful for all that he has done.

There are many problems with regard to the London taxi-cab trade. That is why last year, at the request of the licensed cab trade, we set up a London Cab Trade Consultative Committee to provide a forum for the discussion of matters affecting the trade generally. The Committee has met four times—twice in 1966 and twice this year.

As I have said, there are many problems which face the London cab trade, but my hon. Friend today has concentrated on one; that is, unfair competition from the private hire car trade. It might be a help if I explained briefly why it is that for years past now taxis have been subject to a licensing system and hire cars have not.

The reason has been that taxis ply for hire in the street. This means that their passengers do not have the opportunity that is open to anyone who rings up a car hire firm and orders a car in advance of making whatever checks he thinks necessary into the honesty and reliability of the firm and the cost of the journey. He has no choice when flagging down a cab in the street. That is why the Government have for many years accepted responsibility for ensuring, through the licensing control system, a standard of honesty and efficiency on the part of taxi drivers and their vehicles in the interests of the travelling public.

These special controls do not apply to private hire cars. Indeed, up to now it has not been considered necessary for private hire cars precisely because they are not supposed to ply for hire and may not—legally, at any rate—be flagged down in the street.

I appreciate that the distinction between the respective fields of operation of licensed taxis and private hire cars is not as clear-cut as this would suggest. In these days when private hire cars can be ordered by telephone and directed to a picking-up point by radio, the distinction between this and plying for hire may appear to be a narrow one and the opportunities and temptations for overstepping the line are greater.

On the other side, although the object of the licensing system is to provide certain safeguards in respect of the vehicles that ply for hire in the streets, in practice a fair amount of licensed cab drivers' custom comes from people who ring up for a cab either from a rank or from advertised telephone numbers in the same way as they might ring a car hire firm for a car to take them on an immediate journey.

It is this area of overlap which gives rise to most of the difficulty, because it is here that taxis and private hire cars are in direct competition. I must make it clear that there is nothing illicit or illegal in these hire car firms providing the service which I have described. The licensed cabs, depending as they do on quick turnover, must tend to concentrate on central areas, but in many residential areas the private hire cars provide probably just about the only kind of taxi service. I mention these matters because I have the impression that in some quarters everything about these hire car firms and the fact that they operate at all is regarded as unfair competition with the licensed cab trade.

We have to consider many things. We have to consider the operator and we have also to consider the consumer. There is room for both kinds of service, hire cars as well as licensed taxis, in the London area, providing that the hire cars are acting legally. That is not to say, however, that we are happy about every aspect of the present situation; we are not. I know that some of these hire car vehicles ply for hire although it is illegal for them to do so. The licensed cab trade has a legitimate grievance in that respect and we are hoping to do something about it by means of restrictions on the use by private hire vehicles of terms like "cab" and "taxi", which can mislead the public into thinking that the vehicle is available for hire in the street.

I know, too, that the licensed trade would like this kind of restriction to be taken further and extended to advertising by hire car firms, on the ground that these firms in effect are cashing in on the reputation established by the licensed cab trade when using these terms. It is argued that a person ordering a vehicle is entitled to know whether he can expect a licensed cab and driver with the safeguard which that implies. It has also been suggested that basic controls similar to those applied to licensed taxis should be applied to private hire cars and even, in some quarters, that this might be carried to the point of virtually eliminating the existing distinction between these two forms of transport.

These are far-reaching proposals. It may well be that the time has come to refashion the existing system to take account of changes both in transport and social patterns which have occurred since the 1930s when the 1934 Cab Order established the existing pattern of our licensed cab trade. It may well be, too, that our existing system imposes somewhat too strict a control over the licensed trade and not a sufficiently strict control over hire cars. These are all questions which will need very careful looking into and we are to do just that.

In reply to a Question, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 9th March that consideration was being given to the best means by which an inquiry of this kind could be carried out. I am now able to announce that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to proceed at once to the appointment of an independent committee which would be charged with the task of inquiring into the operation, structure and economy of the taxi-cab and private hire car trades in London and to consider the respective roles of the two services and the statutory controls needed for their safe and efficient performance. I hope that all sections of the London cab trade and everybody concerned will co-operate with this Committee in order to provide the evidence which will mean that it can produce a worthwhile report which is not too long in being efficiently completed.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this subject and giving me the opportunity to make this statement, and I thank him again for the interest which he has shown on behalf of his own people.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Does the announcement which my right hon. Friend has just made mean that the reviewing body which the Prime Minister announced on 9th March has not yet been formed and has not begun to operate? If so, there have been several months' delay which, in view of the urgency of the matter, should have been avoided.

My other point is this. A man with a car may have a regular job during the day and at night operates as a so-called mini-cab driver in the West End without any experience or knowledge of London and without proper insurance. That is the sort of abuse which is beginning to develop. I consider that to be most unfair competition and very harmful to public safety.

I hope that in the few minutes which remain my right hon. Friend will deal with those points.

Miss Bacon

By leave of the House, may I reply to my hon. Friend. The Committee has not been set up. At one time it was thought that it would be a rather wider committee and consultations had to proceed between my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Minister of Transport. But we are proceeding with the committee on the terms of reference which I have just announced.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.