HC Deb 07 April 1981 vol 2 cc877-86
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 132, line 28, leave out clause 166.

I move the amendment from a sense of frustration. I should prefer to be moving amendments Nos. 2 to 6 but they have not been selected. I understand that they have not been selected because of the procedures of this House and of the House of Lords when dealing with Private Bills.

The amendments that were tabled in my name express more clearly what I should like to see done. The reason why I move amendment No. 17 is to enable the House to have a full debate in the remaining time because Members on both sides feel strongly that the clause on taxis is not in the best interests of the people of Greater Manchester. There should be better legislation to deal with taxis.

The taxi service is part of the public transport system of Greater Manchester. If it is logical for Greater Manchester to have powers over buses and the rail services throughout much of the area it is logical to develop one taxi service for the entire area. I do not normally like powers to be moved from the district to the metropolitan authority. I should prefer taxi licensing to be left with the districts but with the addition of a Greater Manchester service.

Each district licenses its taxis and there are different arrangements when taxis leave the district. For a long time in the city of Manchester the system was that metered fares applied up to six miles from Manchester town hall, whereas most of the other districts had a metered fare within the individual district.

8.15 pm

The reasoning behind the Bill is to rationalise all local measures. Yet the taxi service has produced further illogicality rather than rationalisation. The districts license taxis for fares within the district and for carrying passengers outside the district for four miles. En the original provisions the distance was six miles. The measure does not allow drivers to pick up as they return until they reach their own district. The taxi driver is disadvantaged because he may have to carry a fare four miles beyond the boundaries and return four miles without being able to pick up a fare. That is frustrating for the taxi driver. It is also frustrating for a fare in Stockport to see a Manchester city taxi drive past with an illuminated "for hire" sign. The driver cannot stop to pick up that fare until he returns to the city. That is unsatisfactory for the driver and for the public.

There are problems for passengers arriving at Manchester airport. I know that many hon. Members use Manchester airport and suffer some of the frustrations, but because they know the system they know what to expect. Unfortunately, a large number of passengers often arrive in this country for the first time at Manchester airport. They do not understand the British taxi system, which takes some understanding, and they are misled—that is the fairest word—by the taxi driver, often accidentally, but sometimes, I fear, on purpose.

Mr. Orme

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just at the airport but also at the railway terminals that people suffer frustrations? From Piccadilly station to travel a stone's throw to Salford one has to pay a double fare for such a short journey—

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

My right hon. Friend should address the Chair.

Mr. Orme

My hon. Friend is not Mr. Speaker. I assume that I am in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Orme

That creates injustice. Many taxi drivers do not like it, whereas a minority exploit the situation. That gives a bad name to the taxi service within the Greater Manchester area.

Mr. Bennett

I accept that. It applies at the railway stations, at bus terminals, especially for long distances buses, and at the airport. I mentioned the airport because it is especially hard on travellers coming from abroad who have had no experience of the British taxi system. Those travellers are often the most vulnerable.

I also have sympathy for taxi drivers who work from the airport, because they are part of a lottery. A driver may have a fare which takes him a mile or two miles or he may be fortunate enough to have a fare which takes him to Blackpool or anywhere in the North-West and which earns him considerable income.

What is needed is the establishment of a Greater Manchester taxi service. That sounds simple, but there is one major problem—the unfortunate custom and practice which has developed over the years that one does not buy a taxi and have it licensed by the local authority. Because each local district licenses its own taxis, that has restricted the number of licences issued. Thus, the taxi plates, or licences, are sold by one owner to someone who wishes to take it over. Some owners refer to the plates as their pension funds. When they give up working they can sell their plates for considerable sums to ensure an income on retirement.

The system of sale is often unfair to drivers. Many people license a taxi and drive part of the day themselves as owner-driver and for the other part of the day they employ a driver and pay him a wage. Many of those drivers would like to become taxi owners, but because of the high price at which plates are exchanged they cannot do so. They often feel aggrieved that there is no system by which drivers can eventually become owner-drivers.

The problem is that licence plates change hands for different amounts in different areas. A plate for the city of Manchester has the highest value and plates for other districts do not cost so much. There was considerable upset in Stockport in 1974 when the borough took in the out districts and drivers who had acquired plates for places such as Marple and Bredbury for small sums had conferred on them the privilege to run their taxis throughout the whole Stockport district alongside drivers who had paid large sums for plates for the old Stockport borough district.

That problem was overcome, though not particularly fairly, because there was an advantage to those from the out districts and a disadvantage to those from Stockport. However, it should not be beyond the skills of the Greater Manchester council, the district councils, the taxi owners and the drivers, through their trade union representatives or on their own account, to devise a scheme equitably to phase out the practice of buying plates, so that those who have recently bought plates for considerable sums are not too greatly disadvantaged compared with those who obtained plates for much less.

I beg all those in Greater Manchester to ensure that when the Bill goes through a conference is quickly convened to organise one taxi service in Greater Manchester, with no taxi owner or driver being disadvantaged, so that the public will benefit from a unified service with fares for any journey within Greater Manchester clearly marked on a meter and taxis entitled to pick up passengers anywhere in the Greater Manchester area.

I suspect that many hon. Friends will wish to make similar points. I move the amendment to give hon. Members an opportunity to debate the issue. I would have preferred to move the amendments that were not selected, because they would have improved the situation. I hope that the promoters will assure us that the Greater Manchester council will do all that it can to organise a conference and to ensure that within the next year we have, if necessary, another Bill to establish a Greater Manchester taxi service.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) for my intervention a few moments ago. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were otherwise engaged at the time and I do not think that you or my right hon. Friend understood the import of my intervention.

We have in the Chamber microphones that pick up our voices and operators who try to help us by ensuring that the correct microphones are switched on, but it is becoming a practice of speakers from both Front Benches to turn round and address the House with their backs to the Chair. That is what my right hon. Friend was doing.

I have been told that one addresses the Chair for two reasons. First, the occupant of the Chair can hear and decide whether what is being said is in order; secondly, hon. Members in various parts of the House can also hear the hon. Member who is speaking. I was not getting at my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West, but it is a growing practice for right hon. and hon. Members to turn their backs to the Chair. I have often heard occupants of the Chair tell even prominent Members, including the late Sir Winston Churchill, to address the Chair. The hon. Member concerned invariably complies with that request, which makes things easier for all concerned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thank the hon. Member for his point of order. He is correct, and I confirm that it is becoming a common practice for hon. Members to turn their backs on the Chair. It has been noted several times by occupants of the Chair.

However, it is also common practice for an hon. Member who is answering a point to turn around momentarily to address the other hon. Member concerned. I took it that that was what was happening when the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme).

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) tabled several amendments to clause 166, the principal effects of which would have been to make the additional compellable zone one of six miles rather than four and, in the case of the city of Manchester, to extend the added compellable zone even outside the county of Greater Manchester.

Those amendments have not been selected. If they had been agreed, their effect would have been to convert clause 166 back into the form in which it was originally introduced in November 1978. My hon. Friend now seeks in amendment No. 17 to delete clause 166 altogether. Clearly his purpose is to give the House an opportunity to discuss the clause generally and to give his view of the taxi trade in Manchester as a whole.

Here I think it should be said that there are people who feel that the promoters of the Bill should have been much more ready meaningfully to consult about their proposals than they are said to have been. Two men of high integrity, both of whom are highly respected in the Manchester area, have been in touch with me to make that point. Mr. James F. Kent, chairman of the TGWU No. 6/191 branch (taxis) and Mr. Geoffrey Duce, the chairman of the Manchester cab committee, say without equivocation that the promoters of the Bill would not consider discussing any alteration to the Bill that reduced in any way the powers that the Bill gave to the district councils. Indeed, they kept insisting that we were wasting our time objecting and should be spending our time agreeing with the district councils the amount of increase required to compensate for the additional area … The letter from Mr. Kent and Mr. Duce goes on: the district councils when approached would not discuss, nor even intimate, what they would consider a fair enhancement of the existing rate to cover the extra area, insisting that the matter be left until the Bill was enacted. This was not acceptable as it left us with a fait accompli and with no redress. In view of the stated purpose of this debate, and the clear pressure of time, I do not propose to extend it further. I do, however, feel that at the very least the important point raised with me about meaningful consultation should not be ignored by the House.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

I support the amendment. I must confess, however, that I do not feel quite so generous as some hon. Members towards the practices of some taxi owners. As the hon. Member representing Blackley, I have been subjected on numerous occasions to strong complaints about the disgraceful practices of some taxi drivers operating particularly from Manchester airport. There is a constant public outcry for action to be taken to remedy the situation. It is unfortunate that some of the complaints about the blatant conduct of some taxi drivers should reflect on the airport, which has to endure and suffer the blame.

Councillor Franklin, the airport chairman, has recently expressed to me his grave concern about incidents of serious exploitation known to his committee. There have been cases where the fare quoted to the passenger has been so extortionate that the passenger has left the taxi. The passenger has rejoined the queue only to find that some arrangement exists among the drivers that precludes his entering another taxi to negotiate an alternative price. There has been serious protest and condemnation about the conduct of some of the taxi drivers.

Some hon. Members representing Manchester constituencies have been furnished with great wads of evidence of complaints received through Manchester town hall referring to grave exploitation. I should like to reinforce my protest by quoting examples of correspondence passed to me. A letter from the Colgate-Palmolive company, addressed to the licensing authority, dated 27 February, states: I am absolutely disgusted with the charges enforced upon travellers by the taxi-drivers at Manchester Airport. Arriving back from a trip abroad at 1.45 pm on Wednesday, 25 February, I tried to take a taxi from the airport to the Colgate-Palmolive building in Ordsall Lane. The first taxi driver demanded double fare, I refused this and said that I would consider one-and-a-half times fare (in itself, I feel, ridiculous). He refused to take me. It is pointless to say the fare should be settled by negotiation. If you once get into a cab at the airport and do not accept his price, no other driver there will take you. 8.30 pm

Another letter expressing similar sentiments from the same firm complained about the conduct of taxi drivers charging as much as £10 to the company for a relatively short journey. Another complainant, who was not even leaving the district of Manchester, writing to the authority in January, said: I would like to complain about excessive overcharging against taxi No. 144 (Mantax). On Sunday 18 January, 1981 I was at Manchester Airport and decided to take a taxi to the Forum Leisure Centre, Wythenshawe. The time was approximately 1.45 pm. On arriving at the Forum, the clock displayed £1.20. The driver asked for £2.40. I did not argue with the driver. I paid him and then made a note of the time, and the driver's number. Another complaint with which I should like to acquaint the House was sent on behalf of a foreign visitor who travelled to Manchester through Manchester Airport in March this year. The complainant states: I wish to bring to your notice that on the 16th inst., one of our engineers, a Japanese gentleman, who is unable to converse in English, was charged £14 taxi fare from Ringway Airport to our premises at Junction Street, Hyde, Cheshire. The sum of £14 we feel was extortionate and we would ask you to give this your attention. The taxi arrived at approximately 12.45 pm. We enclose copy of signed receipt for your reference". I could describe other complaints. The town hall licensing authority is tired of hearing about the conduct of some taxi drivers. I do not say that all taxi drivers behave in that way but even if they are a minority they are damaging the good name of Manchester.

If the malpractice is as great as it appears to be, particularly at Manchester airport, it might be a good idea to take away the taxi rank there and have a desk in the airport building where cars can be hired at fair and honest prices, as opposed to the present Mafia-type operations.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to give the impression that all the taxi drivers behave in that way. The local authority should take away the licences of the drivers who operate sharp practices. I have met drivers who behave in a very fair manner. It would be wrong to stigmatise all drivers for the practices of a few.

Mr. Eastham

I assure the House that all taxi drivers do not behave in that manner, but unfortunately the minority who behave in that way do a grave disservice to the taxi service and to the good name of Manchester. We in Manchester believe that it reflects badly on the city, and it is bad for business. The investment in Manchester airport—the finest in the country—should not be damaged. Many people in the city are demanding drastic action. I agree with them, because we have suffered long enough. I therefore hope that Manchester airport committee will take drastic action.

Mr. McNally

If I were a representative of a taxi owners association or a trade unionist I should be worried when I read our debate in the Official Report. Many Members who represent the Greater Manchester area have voiced doubts about the quality of the taxi service. The clause does not solve the problem, and it does not calm the public doubt about the taxi service. The clause leavers the problem as it is.

It is not a matter of knocking individual taxi drivers, or regarding them all as rogues and thieves. The system that has developed in Greater Manchester does not give the citizen a fair deal. It causes problems for the good taxi driver and provides opportunities for the bad ones.

The population of Greater Manchester is about 490,000, but a further 1.6 million people live within six miles of the city. The total population of about 2 million would have been covered by the original proposals. I fail to understand the compromise, because it satisfies no one and leaves many of the 1.6 million people unprotected.

We should not think of taxis as the prerogative of the rich. Manchester is a busy shopping centre. It is important for the housewife to be able to use the taxi service to get home. Manchester is a business centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) gave a timely warning about how a bad first impression by a visiting business man can damage the city's reputation. In the centre of the city are two main line railway stations. The taxi service from them and the fares charged are important.

Manchester is a centre for major specialist hospitals. People might have to use taxis to cross district boundaries when attending such hospitals. Manchester is also the centre for arts and leisure. People using those facilities might also be compelled to use taxis to cross city boundaries.

Because of the policies of Manchester city council many old Mancunians live in overspill areas and have family links in the city. That might cause people to cross boundaries and to use taxis. A recent survey estimates that about 25 per cent. of journeys originating in the city of Manchester end outside the city boundaries but within six miles of the centre. A patchwork of taxi services has developed, causing real problems and opportunities for the worst to operate in that industry.

A number of references have been made to the special status of Manchester international airport. Its location and the inadequacy of public transport put the taxi service in a special position. I hope that it will not be too long before there is a rail link to the airport. Taxis operate what is almost a monopoly service from the airport. The four-miles provision is restrictive. People in some parts of Cheshire will not be protected. Parts of my constituency will be excluded from protection.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

One of the ironies is that many of my hon. Friend's constituents and people in Cheshire who live under the flight path suffer from the noise of the airport but have to pay a surcharge on taxi fares.

Mr. McNally

My hon. Friend is right. I have received representations to that effect.

The original six-mile plan went some way to accepting the realities of shopping, hospitals, entertainment, main line services and of where people live and work. Yet overcharging of between 100 per cent. and 300 per cent. is not uncommon. That does Greater Manchester and the airport damage. We are allowing the worst to drive out the best. Many of us have seen that this is not inevitable. I believe that since the Home Office legislated on taxi metering from London airport there has been a significant drop in accusations of sharp practice from that airport.

8.45 pm

Taking up something that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley said, the last time I went through a New York airport—La Guardia—thre was an official of the airport, wearing a uniform, standing at the point where taxis were for hire, with a large notice saying "If you have any doubts about the fare quoted to you, please consult the official on duty." That is the kind of consumer protection that we should be thinking about if we want to maintain the good reputation of Manchester international airport.

Mr. Bennett

Representatives of the Home Office are on the Front Bench. We should perhaps press them as to how far they have got with the review that they are carrying out of taxi services outside London.

Mr. McNally

My hon. Friend is ever eloquent and the Home Office is ever attentive. I am sure that the Minister of State, Home Office—the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew)—will want to intervene, because I am sure that with his experience of the London taxi service he understands what a source of irritation and damage this can be. I strongly endorse the idea and I hope that it is taken on board by those who have responsibilities, not least the district councils.

I take the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). Let us have consultations. Let us have a strong commitment to a Greater Manchester taxi service, because we know that the taxi service is damaging to the Greater Manchester area as a whole; it is damaging to tourism; it is damaging to industry; it is irritating to the local population; and it is—I mean this very sincerely—damaging to the taxi industry itself.

I urge those local authorities and those involved in working and managing the taxi industry to take note of what is being said tonight, because we are voicing the real irritation and anger of the people of Greater Manchester and we are putting to Ministers, to district councillors and to the Greater Manchester council an appeal for proper legislation, and not the inadequate measure before us tonight.

Mr. Jim Callaghan (Middleton and Prestwich)

It was not my intention to speak on the amendment, although I had intended to speak on clause 149, but unfortunately the relevant amendment was not selected. However, having listened to the various speakers on this subject I feel moved to contribute to the debate. It has been said that there are cowboys among the taxi owners and taxi drivers in the Manchester area. I suggest that there are cowboys in every section of society, and I would put the other side of the argument.

I think that it is well known among our Back Benchers that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) feels very strongly about the cowboys in the taxi service operating from the railway station, either because they take him the long way round through Manchester to where he lives or take him to the border of Manchester and, as he lives 100 yards across the border, they very often want to charge him double the taxi fare.

I am in a somewhat similar situation, in that on occasion, when I have had to hire a taxi from the Piccadilly railway station to my home in Middleton and Prestwich, I have had to negotiate a fare—which varies from driver to driver—because we are going across the border.

On the other hand, there are many good taxi drivers and I should like to pay a tribute to one of them. One very bad night when I was seven hours late and thought that because of the blizzard I would not be able to get home, that man, a good Samaritan, went round collecting people who were travelling on the north side of Manchester—Rochdale, Oldham—and fought his way through the dreadful conditions. On that night I should have been pleased to pay him anything for the service that he rendered to me. So we have good and bad in all sections of our society.

Before the reorganisation of local government boundaries there used to be a very stupid and very silly system. It was akin to the taxi system which operates at present in the Greater Manchester area. Formerly, if one got on to a bus or any other form of public transport and travelled to the border of the next local government authority, one then either had to get off the bus and walk to the bus stop of the next authority and pay a second fare, or pay the conductor a fare to the border of, say, the Manchester authority, and then pay the conductor a second fare if one happened to be travelling in Hyde or Stockport.

I am delighted to say that that silly system was completely eradicated and that with the Greater Manchester transport authority it is now possible to travel across the huge conurbation from Hyde to Wigan paying only the one fare. There has been a sensible rationalisation of resources. We ought to take a leaf out of that book and operate the taxi system on a similar basis. I hope that the Secretary of State for Transport will investigate the possibility of having a similar system for the taxi drivers.

Mr. Bennett

One of the crazy aspects of the problem is that taxis are not dealt with by the Department of Transport. It is the Home Office that is responsible for the licensing of taxis. I understood that the Home Office had a working party that was supposed to be looking at the question of provincial taxis. We ought to be pressing the Home Office to get on with it.

Mr. Callaghan

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) for his intervention. It is useful to have the information that the authority responsible for taxis is the Home Office. I should like to know why the Secretary of State for Transport is not dealing with the matter. However, it is a point for another debate at another time.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the need for a rationalisation of the taxi service throughout Greater Manchester, so that we can have a unified system whether we are getting a taxi at a railway station or at Ringway airport. My hon. Friend mentioned the occasion when he tried to flag down a taxi with a "For hire" sign on it and could not be picked up because it was not in the appropriate territory. It is an absurd, lunatic system. The sooner the Home Office decides to look at the system and make it sensible—similar to the one that we now have with public transport in Greater Manchester—the better it will be.

Mr. Silvester

We have had a very useful debate. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Stockport North (Mr. Bennett) will seek leave to withdraw the amendment but I am glad that he tabled it. This is not a party matter. We are all disappointed that the Bill still has not solved the taxi problem.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) quite gave credit to the promoters. What they started with may not have been the right answer, but at least it was better than the compromise that we now have. The problem will not be an easy one to solve and the attempts made so far show the enormous difficulties that we face. Mention was made of the cost of the plates, showing that there are very considerable personal difficulties involved. There have been various local Acts in the past, as a result of which different rules have applied in Manchester, Rochdale, and so on.

Times are changing, and the changes are most noticeable at the airport. The taxi service must move into the present clay. There may have been a time when the taxi service was on the fringe of society, but nowadays it is at the heart of it. We all have at heart a desire for the future growth of Manchester airport. We all know what it means for the North-West, and it is right that we should give attention to it.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) suggested that there should be a desk at the airport to deal with people wanting private car hire. As he was speaking, I was looking up the evidence given to a committee in the other place by the senior supervisor at the information desk, where advice about private hire cars is given. She said that passengers arrive and ask how to get to their destination, to stations or other towns, and it is the job of the girls at the information desk to help them in the best way possible, depending on how they wish to travel. The problem is that there are very often groups of taxi men standing near the desk who listen to the conversation and then follow the passengers, or even interfere in the conversation with the passengers. Evidence has been given elsewhere of one or two occasions when the police had to be called.

Mr. Eastham

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not defend taxi drivers who conducted themselves in that way. What he says reinforces my comments about the disgraceful conduct of some people, which should be stopped.

Mr. Silvester

I could not agree more. I am simply saying that the desk exists and that there is pressure even on the people manning the desk. The hon. Gentleman gave illustrations of the way in which people at the airport are treated. That is bad for business. It is a shame for Manchester and a shame for good taxi drivers. The sooner we can do something about it the better. With that I agree, and I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thought otherwise.

It would be nice to end on a note of agreement and of hope that we can solve the problem, as this is the last debate on the Bill. I am not in a position to give the categorical undertaking asked for by the hon. Member for Stockport, North to hold a conference on taxis. It is not in my power to make such a promise, nor is it in the power of the people who are in the House tonight advising me. All I can say is that I give my personal undertaking, following the debate, immediately to seek to get Greater Manchester council to take the matter further. A conference may be necessary. As it is a district matter, people will be treading on eggshells. It may be necessary to have a joint conference of districts. I undertake riot to let the matter rest.

As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said, consultation is at the heart of this matter. I am sorry that the previous consultation did not lead to a satisfactory conclusion. The problem will not go away; it will get worse and it is in the interest of everyone concerned that a rational and fair solution is reached. I shall do what I can to achieve that end.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

This has been a useful debate. I hope that the Greater Manchester Council, the district councils of Greater Manchester, the taxi owners, the taxi drivers and their trade union representatives, if they have not been able to listen to the debate, will read it and take note. Hon. Members who have spoken tonight are unanimous in saying that the taxi services should be improved, and we genuinely speak for a large number of our constituents who are dissatisfied. As my amendment would do nothing to improve the situation and was tabled merely to ensure that we had a debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill to be read the Third time.