HC Deb 27 March 1975 vol 889 cc766-73

3.17 p.m.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise a matter concerning a constituent of mine. It is a matter which gives me cause for great concern and worry. It is the case of Mr. Patrick Groom, who is a youngish man—he is 34. He now lives in my constituency, but some years ago he lived in Walsall.

Mr. Groom came to see me at my surgery—this is how the case first came to my attention—because he had been refused a private vehicle hire licence by the local authority. He was absolutely frank with me about his prison record. About four years ago he was sentenced to three and a half years for safebreaking, and he served 18 months of that sentence. He has been in trouble since then, having served another 16 months in prison.

After he came out of prison the first time he bought a shop in Walsall in 1973 and tried to make a go of that, but that was when he got into trouble again and his general store had to be sold. He lost money on the deal. When he came out of prison the second time he moved to Wolverhampton, into my constituency, in order, as he said, to make a fresh start and to put everything that had gone before behind him.

He moved out of the area where he had had an unhappy association with both his private life and his business and into Wolverhampton where nobody knew anything about his record. He got a job driving for a taxi firm in Wolverhampton as an employee. He held this job for about six months, and then, with several persons, he set up a new taxi firm in Wolverhampton—which of course covers my constituency and the other Wolverhampton constituency—called Allbro Taxis. For a year he worked with the taxi firm. The partners set up the business from scratch and it became a flourishing private vehicle hire firm doing about 2,000 taxi jobs a week.

Then my constituent was required under the byelaws to apply to the local authority for a private vehicle hire licence. On 9th January his application was heard by the appropriate committee of the local authority, but it was refused. My constituent was not told why his application had been refused. He sought the advice of a solicitor, who advised him to appeal. To make sure that the appeal was properly presented, the solicitor advised him to engage counsel, which my constituent did.

On 27th February my constituent's appeal was heard at Dudley Crown Court, and he was represented by a barrister. The appeal was turned down. My constituent accrued counsel's fees of £162 and costs were awarded against him. When I spoke to him early this week he told me that he had not heard how much the costs would be, but clearly a considerable amount of money will be involved.

My constituent is not now able to work with his firm, and he is worried about the barrister's fees which he has to meet and the costs which will be placed upon him in due course. He is living on about£18 a week unemployment pay. He is a young man with a wife and a little girl of seven and his wife is expecting another baby in September.

At Dudley Crown Court Judge Chetwynd-Talbot said that he regretted having to give this decision and went on to say, Any course that makes it difficult for a man with a criminal past to earn his living is regrettable. We have come to the conclusion that the committee used proper discretion. Mr. Groom's counsel made a strong plea on his behalf. He pointed out that because of the decision of the local authority committee, Mr. Groom had lost his livelihood and that he had had to withdraw from the taxi firm which he and his colleagues had set up and was living on £18 a week unemployment pay.

My constituent finds it difficult to understand—and so do I—where the justice of this decision lies. I am a simple soul, as my hon. Friend the Under—Secretary of State knows, and I assume that once a man has been tried by his peers and has served a prison sentence for an offence that he has committed, the slate is wiped clean and he will not be compelled to continue to pay the price for sins he committed in the past. My constituent has shown that he is anxious to go straight in the job he wants to do and is equipped to do. No complaints have been made about any of the taxi-driving jobs he did and his partners who were working in the firm with him were satisfied with his work. They are incensed that my constituent should be prevented from carrying on his job. No complaints about him were made by anyone.

At the local authority committee hearing on 9th January an application by a man in a similar position, who had a suspended prison sentence for assault two years ago, was turned down. But at the Dudley Crown Court Judge Chetwynd-Talbot decided that the application should have been granted, and the appeal was allowed. That driver had been employed by Mr. Groom's firm and had been sacked because for various reasons he was not suitable.

It is difficult to understand why the judgment was given against my constituent. I assume that the judge felt that my constituent was not a worthy person to be allowed to do this sort of work. I am well aware that what counts is the opinion of the judge. In other parts of the country before other courts and other judges different decisions have been given. That accentuates the unfairness to my constituent.

I am concerned about the reasons why the licence was not granted to my constituent. I understand that the ground which the judge may have taken into consideration is his past record. But my constituent has paid the, price for the peccadillos he committed in the past by serving his prison term. I understand that it is felt that a man with a prison record who drives taxis may put his clients at risk. He may be in a position to get information about the movements of householders. If he takes people to a station or an airport he knows that they will be away from home for a certain period and he may be tempted to burgle their premises.

The anomaly is that my constituent, who has an ordinary driving licence, is not prohibited from driving. As he has a licence which covers ordinary commercial vehicles, I assume that he would be able to drive a milk float or a bread delivery van, either of which would entail calling at people's houses every day of his working life. It is, therefore, a rather curious consideration for the Crown court to take into account when considering my constituent's appeal.

I should like to hear from my hon. Friend what steps she thinks can be taken by the Department to see that justice is given to my constituent. Justice has not been given. He has been made to pay over again his debt for offences he committed in the past. Is that situation to continue throughout his working life? Is he not to be allowed to decide what kind of job he wants to do without having his past brought against him?

Another unpleasant aspect is the publicity that has surrounded the case. I said earlier that my constituent moved from Walsall to Wolverhampton after serving a prison sentence. He has bought a house in Wolverhampton. Financially he is in a difficult position because he has to keep up the mortgage repayments. Until he appeared before Dudley Crown Court none of his neighbours either in the street or in the area knew anything about his past. When the appeal was turned down all the facts were reported in the local newspaper.

It is not surprising that my constituent feels bitter. His treatment seems to be contrary to all the tenets of justice. We are given to understand that once a person has made a decision to go straight he is given every possible help from society. That is not so. Is there no way by which the slate can be wiped clean? I know that the new legislation does not bite on cases of this sort, but should not the Department have another look at the provisions in the legislation?

Is it not possible for my hon. Friend to give advice other than the obvious advice to Mr. Groom to take his appeal still further, which he cannot afford to do, in the hope that he will receive the licence for which he has applied so that he can carry on the job which he has done for the past 12 months without any complaint from his partners or from any of the clients he has taken on the many journeys he has made? I should be glad to hear from my hon. Friend how she feels my constituent might be helped.

3.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summer-skill)

With the leave of the House, I shall speak a second time.

The facts of the case are broadly as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short), and I sympathise with the difficulties which her constituent is facing.

On 8th November 1974 Mr. Groom submitted to the Wolverhampton District Council an application for a licence to drive a private hire vehicle. The local authority referred the application to the local police for their observations whether they considered the applicant a fit person to hold such a licence. On his application form Mr. Groom said that he had a conviction for using a motor vehicle with a bald tyre. He made no reference to any other convictions. I understand that the police checked their records and found that Mr. Groom in fact had a considerable criminal record, including a suspended sentence of 18 months imprisonment imposed in December 1973 for burglary and damaging property.

The police informed the local authority that, in their view, Mr. Groom was not a suitable person to hold a licence. At a subsequent meeting of the Public Works and Highways Committee of the local authority on 9th January the police repeated this advice. They said that Mr. Groom had a number of convictions for motoring and criminal offences. They did not say what these were, but they did say that Mr. Groom was still subject to a suspended prison sentence. They also said that the decision in respect of the licence was a matter for the committee and pointed out that Mr. Groom's livelihood was at stake. Nevertheless, the committee decided not to grant the licence.

Mr. Groom subsequently appealed, but his appeal to the Dudley Crown Court, which was heard on 27th January this year, was dismissed. Both the Wolverhampton Council and Mr. Groom were represented by counsel. The chairman of the committee which had refused the application gave evidence. He argued that the council had a responsibility to protect the public and that, in its view, the duty to protect the public must have priority. The police record of convictions was produced at the hearing. I understand that in discussing the appeal the judge said that he had been mindful of making a decision which could interfere with Mr. Groom's chances of obtaining employment, but he agreed with the chairman's statement that the duty of protecting the public must come first.

I must say frankly that I am concerned about some aspects of this case. The decision in respect of the licence was a matter for the local authority and for the Crown court on appeal—and I naturally make no comment on their decision. It was for them to decide in the light of all the information whether Mr. Groom was a fit person to hold a licence and whether the application should be granted. But I am somewhat concerned that the police should have been involved in consideration of the application to the extent that they were.

The supply of police information is governed by the general principles set out on 14th June 1973 by the right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr), who was then Home Secretary. In reply to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), he referred to a review of the disclosure of police information which had been carried out by a working party of officials and chief officers of police. He said then that the supply of police information would continue to be governed by the general principle that no information is given to anyone, however responsible, unless there are weighty considerations of public interest which justify departure from that general rule. He went on to say that the circumstances in which the police may be asked to give information in connection with applications for licences had been reviewed. He said that where the police were authorised by statute to provide evidence about the suitability of applicants for certain licences they should discharge their duty to assist the court or other statutory body. A copy of the Home Office circular to the police which was subsequently issued in August 1973—Home Office Circular No. 140/1973—is in the Library of the House.

The Home Office view about the use of police information, and in particular about the use of police information in respect of applicants for licences, continues to be governed by those general principles. In respect of applicants for licences as drivers of taxis or private hire vehicles, our view is that a departure from the general rule about the confidentiality of police records is not normally justified.

In reaching this conclusion my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is guided by the consideration that the criminal opportunities for a taxi driver are not significantly different from those in many other trades which come into contact with the public and are in a position to abuse that trust. It is in accordance with this view that chief officers generally do not provide information in respect of prospective taxi drivers. Where they did so in the past, since the issue of the circular, the practice has generally now ceased.

I know that the implementation of this advice has itself given rise to some protest on the part of the local authority associations concerned. They consider that a person who hires a cruising cab places himself or herself very much at the mercy of the driver, in whom he needs to have an implicit trust. But I think that the general principle in respect of police information is a good one, and that generally it ought not to be breached in respect of prospective taxi drivers.

However, the decision in each individual case must eventually rest with the chief constable of the area concerned. It is for him to decide to what extent he should follow the general advice issued by the Home Office. Where the advice is followed, there may always be occasions when in the circumstances of the particular case the chief constable considers that he should make an exception and disclose relevant information to a licensing authority, although he is not required by statute to do so.

I have consulted the Chief Constable of the West Midlands about the action of the police in this case and about his general policy. He agrees that as a matter of practice it is not appropriate for the police to disclose information in their possession in respect of applicants for licences as taxi drivers, but I very much regret that in this case the Wolverhampton police went too far in providing information about Mr. Groom, though I recognise that Mr. Groom had a list of previous motoring and criminal offences which he had not revealed and that he was still subject to a suspended prison sentence.

I hope that the particular circumstances of the case will not occur again. I appreciate that this will not help my hon. Friend's constituent, but, as I have said, the appeal decision in the case was a matter for the Crown court and there is no action that the Home Secretary can take.

Because, as I have said, I am not entirely happy about the circumstances of the case, I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful to my hon. Friend.