HC Deb 28 July 1982 vol 28 cc1085-90

5.1 pm

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 92, line 25, after 'Act', insert `(except section [Journeys in England and Wales by vehicles and drivers licensed under this Act] which applies to England and Wales)'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 1—Journeys in England and Wales by vehicles and drivers licensed under this Act.

Mr. Stewart

The amendment and the new clause provide that licensed Scottish taxis and hire cars may pick up passengers in England. Amendment No. 55, which we shall come to on Report, provides for reciprocity for English taxis.

The changes arise from undertakings that we gave in the Scottish Grand Committee about two problems that had been drawn to our attention by, in particular, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel)—I am glad that he has added his name to the amendment and the new clause—and the hon. Members for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith).

The problems have arisen in relation to Berwick railway station in particular. The provisions will enable licensed Scottish vehicles to pick up passengers in response to a telephone call which they receive in their licensed area. I commend the proposals to the House. They meet a problem that has caused the right hon. and hon. Members whom I mentioned particular anxiety.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I thank the Government, albeit late in the day, for meeting a difficult problem across the border, although mainly affecting Berwick. The English legislation was defective, as it took no account of the position in Scotland, and we are having to amend a recent English Act.

The Under-Secretary is right in his description of the reciprocal arrangements proposed, except in one respect. He said that it would be lawful for a Scottish taxi to pick up a passenger in England provided that it was in response to a telephone call to the Scottish taxi's headquarters, but I do not believe that he meant literally that it had to be a telephone call. It is normal practice for someone going on holiday or on a visit to the South to take a taxi to the station—that has always been legal—and to arrange there and then that the same taxi will pick him up at the end of his journey. The amendment will make that legal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) wishes to ask how reciprocal the reciprocal arrangements will be, but I am happy that the change brings to an end the feud between him and me and that no longer will the police force in Berwick-upon-Tweed arrest my constituents for going about their lawful business.

Mr. John Page (Harrow)

This is the first time that I have ventured into a Scottish debate since I spent a happy year on the Scottish Grand Committee 22 years ago.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on this cross-border and cross-Bench new clause, which emphasises the ecumenical attitude which we have grown to expect from my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I give my hon. Friend a further bouquet. All the clauses dealing with the licensing and regulation of taxis and private hire cars are sensible, comprehensible and fair to the trade and to the travelling public, who are so often forgotten. The change puts the private car hire business on a new footing; it will know where it is and will be properly recognised.

The new clause allows vehicles under the Scottish regulations to operate in a limited way in England, even as far as Harrow, where we shall welcome them, without contravening the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. The private car hire industry, particularly in London, welcomes the change and hopes that the visitations from Scotland and the rash of new legislation will be infectious. For many years London has longed for such regulations.

I hope that it is not tactless of me to suggest that the Secretary of State might draw the Home Secretary's attention to the new legislation; he has been busy with other things in the past few days and may not have had time to do his homework on it.

Finally, I add a word of warning. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has fallen into a pitfall with the new legislation involving seat belts. I shall not pursue that, Mr. Weatherill, as I noticed that you raised your eyebrows an almost imperceptible fraction of an inch, and I do not want to incur your disapproval.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

It must be unusual for a Bill to be recommitted to a Committee of the whole House after having been through a Scottish Standing Committee, especially so that it can be made to apply to my constituency and almost entirely to my constituency. But the Government have sought to deal with a difficult anomaly.

The House appears to be in a frivolous mood, but it should be remembered that we are dealing with the livelihoods of people on both sides of the border in a difficult and competitive business. They are people on whom the general public depend for a taxi at the station or to get from many parts of the Borders region to extremely distant railheads. Particularly in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) people may live 50 miles from the nearest railway station. We should all try to secure responsible and well regulated taxi facilities and make sure that responsible taxi drivers are supported and that proper provision is made for them.

I wish to ensure that in pursuing these changes to the complicated provisions of the Scottish and English legislation the Minister achieves his object. If he does so, he will satisfy all the parties, including the Berwick borough council, which made proposals at an early stage in the discussion and sought to be as constructive as it could be. The borough council was the enforcing authority, to whom fell the uncomfortable duty of enforcing the law against taxi drivers from Scotland who were at the time acting outside the law.

It is important to establish what will happen if these provisions and those that the Minister intends to move later in the Bill come into effect. My understanding is that they will confer complete reciprocity in that all the rights available to Scottish taxis will be similarly available to English taxis in Scotland. I wish to be clear about where reciprocity stands in relation to the decision whether to have a licensing system in an area.

The Berwick borough operates a system for the licensing of taxis by virtue of the discretionary powers in English legislation. What will happen if the appropriate local authority on the Scottish side of the border decides not to exercise such powers? Would the effect be that the law was, for all practical purposes, as it is now, or would there be a one-sided arrangement in which the reciprocal benefit to English taxi drivers of this proposal does not materialise?

If the law remains as it is, and is only brought into practical effect by licensing, there can be no complaint from either side and there will be a strong incentive on the Scottish local authority to introduce a licensing system. I know that there is an amendment later on the Amendment Paper for Report stage to make licensing compulsory. We must cater for what might arise if the Scottish authorities decided not to proceed in the matter. Therefore, I seek the Minister's guidance as to whether reciprocity depends on the Scottish side introducing a licensing scheme, and what happens if it fails to do so. That guidance is what I seek before being ready to give my support to what seems to be, on the face of it, an appropriate tidying up of an anomalous and difficult piece of law.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I am not sure that the local authority and police in Berwick-upon-Tweed seem as benign to people on my side of the border as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested. I welcome the new clause and thank the Secretary of State for introducing it. I also wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) who raised this point in the Committee examining the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and who did his bit to draw attention to this rather localised problem.

I am not sure what interest the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) has in this subject because I cannot imagine that many taxis travel all the way from his constituency to Berwick, but perhaps he has been paying attention to the activities of the Boundaries Commission and is trying to curry favour with people in my part of the world.

Mr. David Steel

I am sorry that the hon. Member is unaware that some of my constituents from Roxburghshire have been stopped and charged in the courts of Berwick-upon-Tweed because they had picked up passengers by pre-arrangement and taken them back to Selkirk. That is quite within my constituency and has nothing to do with the changes proposed by the Boundaries Commission.

Mr. Home Robertson

Perhaps that was retaliation against the famous incident when a former mayor of Berwick-upon-Tweed was charged with an offence in Roxburghshire, but we had better not go into that.

The existing taxi licensing legislation contains a serious anomaly which perhaps only came to light when the English borough of Berwick introduced a licensing scheme covering the area that it controls, which includes Berwick railway station. The Borders region of Scotland is the only major administrative area in the United Kingdom that does not have a railway station. Therefore, it is necessary for people in the Borders region to take advantage of the facilities of Berwick railway station.

Traditionally, taxi and hire car operators in my constituency and, apparently, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles have set down and collected passengers by appointment at Berwick station. However, on 2 July 1981 the rather inappropriately named Mr. M. H. Chicken, the borough secretary of Berwick-upon-Tweed, wrote to taxi operators in my constituency saying: I should be pleased to have your co-operation in either licensing with this authority (application forms are available on request) or ensuring that your staff are instructed not to arrange to pick up passengers within the controlled district. He listed the costs involved, which would mean a Scottish taxi operator paying £60.

5.15 pm

The Berwickshire district council, like the Roxburgh district council, does not operate taxi licensing schemes. Therefore, Berwick borough council was entitled to impose these restrictions. However, what worried me and other hon. Members was the fact that even if the taxi were fully licensed and appropriately inspected, tested and the rest of it in Scotland, it could not pick up passengers, even by appointment, at Berwick station. That seemed to many of us to be pointless discrimination and an unjustifiable financial imposition on taxi and hire car operators in Scotland.

The new clause will eliminate that anomaly. I have been advised today by the chairman of Berwickshire district council that it now intends to introduce an appropriate licensing scheme to enable local taxis to take advantage of the new provisions. Those licences are likely to be considerably cheaper than those offered by Berwick-upon-Tweed council on the English side.

It is appropriate that all parties and all nations approve this useful reform, which also refers to Wales. Since the intervention of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page), we are a little alarmed by the possibility of fleets of English and Welsh taxis appearing on the Scottish side of the border to pick up passengers. All my hon. Friends are keen to encourage commerce and travel between the various nations of the United Kingdom, and the new clause is welcome.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

It was suggested at the beginning of the debate that we were looking at Government new clause 1 and Government amendment No. 1. That is what appears on the top of the selection list. Government amendment No. 1 is an interesting amendment because it refers to amendment No. 3, which appears down the list, and I assume that we shall be coming to that later. It fits ill with this particular—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman may be under a misapprehension. We are dealing with Government amendment No. 1 in Committee, not on Report.

Mr. Dewar

In other words, new clause 1 becomes Government amendment No. 1?

The Chairman

Order. Government amendment No. 1 might be said to be a paving amendment for new clause 1. We are debating amendment No. 1 and, with it, new clause 1.

Mr. Dewar

I hope that I am clear in saying that we are talking merely about the cross-border taxi trade and nothing else. That is the easiest way of dealing with this matter.

My right hon. Friends and I welcome the amendment. The subject that it deals with was dealt with during Committee and I am glad that the Minister has seen his way to making an appropriate concession.

This is not merely the Berwick Railway Station (Emancipation) Bill. Presumably, the same rule will apply to any cross-border traffic, wherever it takes place, although Berwick is well represented and one would say that some hon. Members seem to have a special interest in it. However, the case has a wider application.

This protection will be afforded only to Scottish taxis that come from an area that is licensed and where a licensing system operates. That is important to the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) who is worried about his constituents being charged. If he cannot persuade his local authority to opt into the licensing provisions in the Bill when it becomes an Act—the provisions are optional—the taxi drivers will still be in breach of the law, as I understand it, if they go to pick up at Berwick railway station, or anywhere else south of the border, by pre-arrangement.

I should have thought that the reciprocal arrangement might be the same. If an English taxi came to an unlicensed area in Scotland it might be in breach of the regulations, but it would be all right if it were coming to a licensed area. Perhaps the Minister will clear that up, as I am not as sure about reciprocal arrangements as I am about the trade from Scotland to England for the purposes of picking up fares.

With that one proviso, and with the observation that this would seem to be another reason for thinking that we ought to amend clause 9 to make sure that all local authorities have a licensing system, I extend a warm welcome to the new clause.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I am grateful to those hon. Members who have spoken in support of both the amendment and the new clause. We have had a brief but well-informed debate.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page) that my colleagues in the Home Office have closely followed the general provisions on taxis and hire cars.

The right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) referred to telephones. I used that as an example of the kind of circumstances in which the new clause will apply. I confirm that these provisions apply only to licensed vehicles.

I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) that Berwickshire intends to introduce a system to license vehicles that cart be licensed either in their own areas or, conceivably, south of the border—for example, in Berwick—as private hire cars.

Although we have concentrated on Berwick, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) was correct to point out that the provisions apply right across the border.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 138, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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