§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Allan Stewart
I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 8, line 38, at end insert—'(2A) Without prejudice to paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to this Act, a licensing authority shall refuse an application to grant a taxi licence if, in their opinion, granting it would have an adverse effect on the general availability to the public in their area of the services of taxis or the cost of providing these services.'.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:
No. 49, in page 8, line 38, at end insert—'(2A) Without prejudice to paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to this Act, a licensing authority shall refuse an application to grant a taxi licence or private hire car licence if, in their opinion, granting it would have an adverse effect on the general availability and costs of taxi services or private hire car services in their area'.No. 189, in page 8, line 38, at end insert—`(2A) Without prejudice to paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to this Act a licensing authority shall refuse an application to grant a taxi licence or private hire car licence if, in their opinion, the number of licences already granted in their area is sufficient to provide an adequate service to the public'.No. 190, in page 8, line 38, at end insert—'(2A) Without prejudice to paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to this Act a licensing authority shall refuse an application to grant a taxi licence if, in their opinion, the number of licences already granted in their area is sufficient to provide an adequate service to the public'.
§ Mr. Stewart
This amendment is of fair importance and it has already been referred to by several hon. Members during our debates. Concern was expressed on Second Reading in the Scottish Grand Committee and in Committee that there was no provision in the Bill to allow local authorities to limit the number of taxi licences.
During extensive debates it was argued that the taxi trade was in a unique position, for three reasons: first, that its fares were controlled by a local authority; secondly, that under the present system of limitation operators who had bought their way in could suffer a capital loss if such limitation were removed—that point was made by the hon. 1130 Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang)—and, thirdly, that the trade itself was strongly in favour of the continuation of such a provision.
It was argued that the absence of limitation powers could mean a reduction in the availability of services on a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day basis throughout a licensing authority's area because full-time operators would be driven out of business and would have to concentrate on city centres at weekends, when the demand is highest. That could mean a reduction in the availability of services in the peripheral areas and at unsocial hours.
I do not need to detain the House by speaking at greater length on this amendment. It was fully discussed on Second Reading and in Committee and I believe that it will be warmly welcomed by all hon. Members. I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to respond to any points that are raised by hon. Members on the other amendments that are being taken with amendment No. 48.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing
The principle of the Minister's proposal is acceptable, but the wording of amendment No. 48 leaves a little to be desired. From my point of view and that of my hon. Friends, the wording is strange, to say the least. However, amendment No. 49, to which I speak now, was drafted before the Government amendment appeared, and it was not only for that reason that we tabled amendment No. 49. In our view, it has the same effect but is much clearer in its definition of the conditions under which licensing authorities can refuse to grant licences.
It is important to remember that under this part of the Bill any applicant who is refused a licence by a licensing authority has the right to appeal to a sheriff. Under amendment No. 48, where an applicant is refused a licence and appeals to a sheriff, it will be difficult for the local authority to prove its case before the sheriff, if only because of the wordsin their opinion, granting it would have an adverse effect on the general availability to the public in their area of the services of taxis or the cost of providing these services.Amendment No. 49 is much clearer in its intention and would make life easier for the local authorities, which are the licensing authorities, and would certainly make life easier against the background of any appeal to the sheriff. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will consider what I have said and possibly not press amendment No. 48, but, in its place, accept amendment No. 49. If he is not minded to do that, I implore him to give the House a fuller explanation of why amendment No. 48 is worded in the way that it is. There can be no doubt that amendment No. 48 is loosely worded and will create difficulties for licensing authorities, particularly on an appeal to the sheriff.
Amendments Nos. 189 and 190 are designed to permit limitation, not only for taxis, but for private hire vehicles. Again, I am perfectly well aware that there is a division of opinion on this matter. We have come along the road of allowing the private hire vehicles, if they so desire, to introduce taxi meters. There has been some relaxation—we shall come to that later—about illuminated signs on private hire vehicles, allowing them to display a sign under certain conditions laid down in the legislation. If we have come along that road and that of limitation in relation to black cabs, which we all accept, surely the logic of our actions in the past few months would lead us to limitation in private hire.
I know that private hire people are not particularly enamoured with the proposal that they should not be 1131 limited, whereas the black cabs should be. These amendments say that a licensing authority which decides to operate a licensing system—the House has decided that it should be discretionary—should also have the power to introduce limitation for private hire vehicles in the same way as the legislation gives it the power to limit the black cabs.
I know all about the return—on—investment arguments. It is futile to repeat those at this late stage. However, all the logic of our actions has led us to the position that the Government should seriously accept the proposition that it makes sense to limit the private hire vehicles in the same way as the Government have accepted there should be limitation on the black cabs.
If there is no limitation, I am bound to forecast that a trade war—I put it no higher than that—will break out. In their heart of hearts, I am sure that both sides of the trade will accept that that is unavoidable. There are bound to be casualties in such a trade war. The private hire people should understand that they will be as much the victims as the black cab people. Therefore, it is in the interests of both sections of the trade that the Government should accept amendments Nos. 189 and 190.
In case it has slipped the Under-Secretary's mind, I remind him that we are not at all happy with the loose wording of Government amendment No. 48. We would much prefer the Minister to accept amendment No. 49, which is more tightly worded. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says, particularly if he prefers amendment No. 48 to amendment No. 49. I hope that he will explain the reason for the wording in amendment No. 48. I am glad that the Solicitor-General for Scotland is in the Chamber, because that loose wording will give rise to no end of difficulties in an appeal to the sheriff. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
This evening is most odd, because I constantly find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing). As he and I know, that is most unusual.
I too must draw the Under-Secretary of State's attention to the wording of amendment No. 48. We debated the matter at length in Committee, and we understood that the Minister would make over-provision a ground for refusal. If I made a case on that basis, it would not stand up in the light of amendment No. 48. If my hon. Friend believes that it will, he should say so. He should say that the amendment will meet the question of over-provision. After all, we spent some time in Committee on that point. My hon. Friend will note that I have put my name to amendment No. 49. At the time I thought it a useful amendment that met much of my concern. However, if I had to choose among all the amendments, I would now greatly prefer amendment No. 189. It goes much nearer to the nub of the problem.
There are two parts to that problem. We have already dealt with over-provision. However, the more fundamental point is that the trade consists of two sections. We must be careful that we do not end up with a situation that is neither fish nor fowl and that will result, as has been said, in a trade war. Let us be sure that we know what we are doing. There are times when I wish that we had not become involved in this legislation, but since the beginning we have put in many hours of work and we wish 1132 to ensure that what we are doing is best for the customers and for both parts of the trade. That is particularly important when it comes to coping with unlawful operators.
It is interesting to note that even this evening it has been said that the private hire side of the trade does not want the limitation. However, that is not strictly true. Every one of the Dundee licensed private hire operators wants the same provisions as the taxi cabs. All the private hire operators in Dundee wrote a letter to the Minister saying:Dear Sir,We the undersigned represent the entire licensed private-hire taxi trade in Dundee. We would like it to be known that we are in favour of having the numbers of both Hackney and Private-hire taxis controlled by District Council.That could not be clearer.
§ Mr. Ewing
If the private hire operators in Dundee had wanted more people to know of that, they perhaps should have sent a copy of the letter to those of us who have been involved in the Bill. However, I put it on record that those whom we have met are not in favour. I am encouraged by the fact that the Dundee private hire operators, who are, I suspect, fairly representative of north, north-east and central Scotland, are in favour of limitation. The Minister should take that into account.
§ Mr. Walker
I apologise for not having given a copy of the letter to those who have taken an interest in the matter. The fault is mine. However, in my defence I should say that I only got the letter in my hands today. From experience, I have learnt that before pushing material around one must ensure that it is authentic and that it is the original. I managed to get my hands on it today and that is why I am quoting from it. I plead guilty, because I should have done something about it earlier today, but I had other things on my mind.
The letter continues:As both sections are competing for the same business it is futile to control Hackneys and allow unlimited private-hire operation. We would also like it known that we have no connection whatsoever with the West of Scotland Private-Hire Association.I do not know why they say that, but presumably they feel that that association does not represent their views. From Committee and elsewhere, we know that the West of Scotland Private-Hire Association is fairly new and was formed because its members recognised the problems that they may face as the result of the legislation.
When we saw members of the association, they admitted that it was a new association. It is just unfortunate that the private hire section of the trade has not, in the past, been as well organised as the taxi side. That is a pity, because if it had been well organised it would have found, as Dundee found, that it is in the same line of business, that its problems are similar and that the real difficulty is that of unlicensed operators, or pirates as they are called in the trade. In Dundee, the two sides of the trade appear to want to work together. That is encouraging, because there has been a long, sad history of difficulties in Dundee for both the private hire and taxi sections.
I stress that the wording of Government amendment No. 48 is not quite what I would wish for. I hope that my hon. Friend will give us an assurance that it meets the over-provision requirements. If not, perhaps he will explain his views. In Committee, he said that he would 1133 take the opportunity offered by the Report stage and as we have reached that point I look forward to hearing his assurances.
§ Mr. Allan Stewart
With respect to the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing), I am not sure why he thinks that amendment No. 48 is so different from amendment No. 49, which stands in the name of the Opposition. Amendment No. 49 includes the private hire car issue, which is a point of principle. However, apart front that important point, the Opposition's amendment is drafted in more or less identical terms to the Government's amendment. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the trade thought Government amendment No. 48 acceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) also made that point.
I confirm to the House that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Federation of Taxicab Associations are content with amendment No. 48. It meets the commitment that I gave to the Committee. We consulted the federation specifically. We modified the original draft of the amendment in the light of the comments that we received from taxi cab owners.
Amendment No. 190, in the name of the Opposition, would be unduly restrictive because it would require licences to be refused as soon as there was a sufficiently adequate service to the public. That would prevent the service from becoming better for the public, even in circumstances where there would be no adverse effect on the trade. It would restrict taxi services to a minimum level of adequacy. The way in which Government amendment No. 48 proceeds is preferable. It is the way in principle in which Opposition amendment No. 49 proceeds, except for the important point on the control of numbers of private hire car operators.
I do not believe that any of the arguments by hon. Members in favour of limitation of the numbers of taxi cabs applies to private hire car operators. The first argument for limitation was fare control. It was stated that taxi cab owners do not operate in a free market. However, the fares of private hire car operators are not controlled, so that argument does not apply.
Secondly, hon. Members argued about the capital value of plates. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) stressed that argument. However, it does not apply. The third argument represents the view of the trade. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire says about private hire car operators in Dundee, but I am advised that his letter represents the views of six such operators. I accept that that is a genuine point of view, but I do not think that it should be weighed too heavily in the balance against the general view that has been put to us strongly that the private hire car operators are not in favour of local authorities having the power to impose quantitative limitations on their numbers. Entry to the hire car trade should be free to suitable drivers with suitable vehicles. There would be competition.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Did I hear my hon. Friend right when he suggested that the views of six operators were represented? I should like to correct that. There are 14 signatures on the letter.
§ Mr. Stewart
I entirely accept what my hon. Friend has said. It is right that there are 14 signatures. However, 1134 they may be signatures of 14 individuals representing six firms. There are only six or seven hire car licences in Dundee compared with more than 250 taxis.
The general argument put forward by the trade is therefore different. Moreover, in England, under the 1976 Act, limitation such as that proposed by my hon. Friend is specifically prohibited. There has been an expansion of the hire car trade in England to meet public need and demand. Taxis and hire cars are not identical. They should not be treated as if they were identical.
I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been made but I do not believe that the persuasive arguments about taxis apply to private hire car operators. The drafting of amendment No. 48 is acceptable and sensible, and has been fully considered by both the convention and the operators.
§ Amendment agreed to.