HC Deb 28 July 1982 vol 28 cc1105-13

'For the purposes of this Act a taximeter may be fitted only to a vehicle which is licensed as a taxi.'.—[Mr. Bill Walker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

No. 162, in clause 9, page 7, leave out lines 12 to 17.

No. 161, in clause 10, page 9, line 19, at end insert—

'(6) A licensing authority shall refuse an application to transfer a taxi or hire car licence if:

  1. (a) The person to whom it is proposed that the licence be transferred is not in their opinion a fit and proper person to be the holder of such a licence;
  2. 1106
  3. (b) Where the licence relates to an activity consisting of or including the use of premises, the person to whom it is proposed that the licence be transferred in their opinion neither is in possession of the premises nor has a right to possession conditional only upon the transfer to him of the licence;
  4. (c) The holder of the licence is capable of giving his consent to the transfer but has not done so; or
  5. (d) Where the licence-holder has, in the opinion of the licencing authority, not been the de facto operator for a sufficient time since the first granting of the licence, which sufficient time shall be not greater than five years,
and otherwise shall grant the application.'.

No. 163, in clause 13, page 10, line 38, at end insert— '(7) A taxi driver's licence or a private hire care driver's licence may only be issued to applicants who will operate on a full time basis.'.

Mr. Walker

Those hon. Members who were on the Standing Committee will have heard most of the arguments on this issue as we spent some time discussing the thorny problem of taxis. Nevertheless, I do not believe that we finally resolved the fundamental problems of the differences between the various groups within the hire trade—that is, taxi drivers and private hire operators, and the third, unsavoury element that is not licensed and does not not fall into either of those categories. The latter are known in the trade as bandits and they are the main problem.

The new clause and the amendments cover a wide range of aspects of the problem. New clause 5 provides that a taximeter can be fitted only to a vehicle licensed as a taxi. In Committee, the Government seemed happy that meters should be fitted to private hire vehicles, but if the meter is referred to as a taximeter its presence immediately suggests that the vehicle is a taxi. That opens the first area of doubt in the minds of the travelling public.

I believe that private hire operators who wish to use meters will do so in part with the intention of misleading the public into thinking that the vehicle is a taxi. It may be argued that private hire operators would not wish to do that. The Committee spent some time debating, for example, whether the advertisements in newspapers, particularly in the Glasgow area, were misleading and it was generally agreed that they would certainly give a person who did not know anything about the trade the impression that the private operators were offering a taxi service.

Having debated the matter at some length in the presence of private hire operators who had had meetings with us and had declared clearly that they had no wish to mislead, I was disappointed to read the following in a Glasgow newspaper on 28 May: After only a year in business, we realised that a lot of our traffic was going into the city and our customers regularly phoned up looking for cars to bring them back to the district. For the convenience of our customers, we decided to acquire a city rank. The use of the word "rank" was one of the very problems to which we drew attention in Committee because, coupled with the matter of meters, it was clear that the public would again be misled and we should not encourage that in legislation.

In the light of the discussions in Committee, I believe that the main purpose of a meter being put in a private vehicle would be primarily to regulate on behalf of the owner what the vehicle was doing. There is no need for a taximeter for that. It can be done in other ways if it is simply a means of auditing or controlling the operation of the vehicle or the driver or both.

If meters are put into private cars, the cars must be controlled on the same basis as taxis. Otherwise, the public are in danger of getting the wrong idea of the type of vehicle in which they are travelling. Local authorities must be given power to regulate such traffic.

Very properly, there are tight regulations about the testing of meters in taxis cabs. In relation to private hire meters, however, clause 11(2) allows for the removal of the meters at any time. As no lists would be available of the vehicles and the meters and how they were married up, it would not be known which private hire cars had meters and which had not. That, again, shows clearly that we have not got that aspect quite right. Either we must regulate the matter fully so that private hire vehicles and taxis are treated in an equal fashion or, as I have suggested, we must ensure that all cars carrying meters are registered as taxis.

Amendment No. 162 proposes the deletion of subsection (4) of clause 9. Having studied the provision carefully, I wondered how best to tackle this matter. However, as amendment No. 42 deals with the mandatory aspect of licensing, I shall not say much about this now, other than that I think that that amendment will have my support as it seems to achieve my purpose exactly. We must be sure that by the time we finish our proceedings we have tied up all the ends.

As I said in Committee, I believe that once a fare structure is laid down and is mandatory for those who are licensed, there can no longer be a free market because the price to be charged is controlled. The exercise of that degree of control must bring accountability and the responsibility to ensure that the controls apply equally to all who ply for hire. I draw the Minister's attention again to the question of unlicensed vehicles operating into a licensed area. We spent a considerable time on this in Committee and I understood that the Minister had got the message, but I now wonder whether we have got this right. I believe that unlicensed operators who go into licensed areas do so at an advantage. In Committee, I drew attention to the problems of Carnoustie and Invergarry near Dundee. Clearly, that problem must be dealt with.

6.30 pm

I turn now to private hire cars. Although we will be debating again the regulation of all vehicles, my hon. Friend will know that I have a constituency interest in what goes on in Dundee. He will also know that the private hire taxi trade in Dundee has written to him and has stated that it would prefer a licensing system operated by the local authority. The private hire trade in Dundee is disclaiming any connection with the West of Scotland Private Hire Association because it is not in step with the association. Nevertheless, we have a duty and a responsibility to listen to those people and, as some of them are constituents of mine, I ask my hon. Friend to take careful note of that.

Amendment No. 161 deals with the transfer of a taxi or hire car licence. It constitutes a recognition that what is being transferred is not just a licence—a piece of paper—but a business, and that that business has a worth on the open market which must be transferable. In other words, if someone is selling his business, he expects the goodwill of that business and all that goes with it to have a value. In Committee, my hon. Friend made it clear that the Government accept transferability. It was suggested that as this was happening at the moment and did not require legislation it was therefore an accepted pattern. I should like confirmation from my hon. Friend that the transfer of a business is permitted by the legislation as it stands, even by omission, and that he will be taking cognisance of the strong feeling of the Scottish Grand Committee and others on this matter.

I turn now to amendment No. 163 in which I draw attention to the problems that affect the full-time operators. Again, this is a matter that was first brought to my attention almost two years ago. I dealt with my hon. Friend's predecessor on the question of who drives taxis or private hire vehicles. It is interesting that we have legislation that lays down the number of hours that a train driver, a lorry driver and a bus driver may drive. Yet a chap can drive a bus all day long, complete his eight hours, and then in the evening, if he is available, he can climb into a taxi and drive it for another working day if he so wishes. The regulations governing this matter should be examined carefully.

I have no wish to exclude a petrol pump attendent or a mechanic in a small garage from driving a taxi part time as part of the business of the garage. What worries me is that there is substantial evidence that individuals are driving vehicles on a part-time basis after they have done a full day's work elsewhere.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does my hon. Friend accept that taxi and private hire car operators invariably employ part-time people at peak times, holiday seasons, Christmas and other times, and that such people, prior to their driving a taxi or a private hire car, have not necessarily done a full day's work? They may be unemployed people who wish to earn a few extra pounds and hope that it may lead ultimately to a full-time job.

Mr. Walker

I accept that there is obviously such scope, particularly in the rural areas. I hope that nothing I have said would exclude that. I would not wish to do anything to damage the rural areas. I drew attention to the fact that in many rural areas the garages supply the taxis, and that those who drive the taxis or private hire cars do other jobs in the garage. I do not have those people in mind. They could be classified as full-time employees of the holder of the licence. There would be no difficulty there. I am worried about the taxi drivers whose livings are at stake because they are faced with competition from individuals who are not employed full-time in that job. The taxi driver is often self-employed. He is probably the best example of free enterprise that one could give. He is the fellow who will work 12 hours, usually unsocial hours, to provide a service so that he can make a living. If he is in competition with part timers, that would present a risk to his job.

Mr. Maclennan

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great interest. Have not his last few sentences shot down the first part of his speech? He was endeavouring to suggest that the consumer interest was being protected by not allowing part-time licences to be issued. He now says that he is willing to contemplate licensed taxi drivers driving for up to 12 hours, or more presumably, if they see fit.

Mr. Walker

I have never set myself up as a judge of the number of hours that it would be wise for a taxi driver to be on duty. It is common practice, in plying for hire, for a vehicle to be operated on a 24-hour basis, with 12-hour shifts. I am not commenting on whether I think that is wise. I am worried about the chap who has already driven a bus or another vehicle for the normal eight hours, who has a meal, and then returns to do another shift. That is not the same, and anyone who suggests that it is is doing a disservice to the public and to the trade.

I hope that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) is not suggesting that I am not worried about the safety of the public. I am concerned that the public not only get a good deal but a safe, good deal in terms of the number of hours a chap has driven and whether the vehicle that he is driving is up to the job.

It is common practice to have two drivers for a maximum of 12 hours which includes meals, sitting stationary on the ranks, and other such matters. I am told that by the trade. I have no knowledge of the taxi trade, so I must take the advice and the guidance of those who tell me that they represent the trade. Over the past two years, the representatives of the taxi trade in my constituency and in the adjacent constituency where I have an interest have been worried about a number of matters. That is why I have taken this opportunity to suggest that there is considerable merit in my case.

I hope that hon. Members, who were not in Committee and did not listen to our long detailed discussions and who have not grasped my argument, will understand that I am speaking briefly to save the House sitting long hours unnecessarily. If hon. Members wish me to go into great detail, I have the ammunition to do so. However, I do not think that that would be the wish of the House. I am being as brief as I can because I know that the House wishes to deal with the Bill as quickly as possible.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I am glad to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker). It is not often that I agree with him, but there are some elements of common ground on this occasion. The Minister may recall that on Second Reading I said that my primary interest was that the Government should not do anything to damage the valuable service provided in Edinburgh by the taxi trade. I welcome the Government's decision to leave local authorities, especially Edinburgh district council, with the power to restrict the number of taxi cabs operating within their areas.

The compelling reason for retaining that restriction is the need to protect the investment of those who have acquired taxis. I appreciate that many arguments have been advanced for moving eventually from that system, provided that we can protect those who have bought their own taxis, some of whom have been made redundant and have borrowed money to acquire their vehicles. I do not say that the situation that prevails in Edinburgh is ideal, but, in the light of the Government's initial intention, there is an overriding need to protect the investment of many owner-drivers.

I was not a member of the Committee that considered the Bill, but I have read—in some instances rather cursorily—most of its proceedings. I am still in some doubt—I suspect that this applies to the private car hire business and the taxi trade—about the Government's intentions in respect of the regulations that they will introduce under clause 19. I recognise that they have scope to prescribe criteria in one licensing area and other criteria in other areas. I understand that one important function of the regulations is to prevent a licensing authority from laying down a certain condition, or what the Minister would call a restriction.

It is important that the Minister should give us some idea of what the Government will have in mind when they introduce the regulations. I have sympathy with the argument that has been advanced on behalf of full-time drivers, but I do not think that it is practical to try to lay down regulations for the whole of Scotland. I should like to see the Edinburgh licensing authority free to encourage full-time drivers. I say that partly because of the unemployment background. It is natural that those who have a full-time job in the taxi trade in Edinburgh, for example, want their jobs protected. They see scope for additional full-time drivers in the taxi trade in Edinburgh.

There are various ways in which a licensing authority can encourage full-time drivers. It can be done by means of the allocation of licences and transferability provisions. It would be possible to protect the investment of someone who is giving up his licence and, at the same time, introduce a scheme of giving priority to someone who, for example, has been earning his living by working full lime by driving someone else's taxi. There are many such drivers in Edinburgh and Glasgow and in some other parts of Scotland. We should encourage the idea of enabling these drivers to acquire their own licence, or plate, as it is known more colloquially in Edinburgh, and to go about their own business. The likelihood is that they would continue to operate as full-time drivers with their own taxi cabs.

6.45 pm

I agree with the argument of the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire about the installation of taximeters in private hire cars. It would be my inclination to rule that out. If the Minister is intent on laying down regulations that will restrict the freedom of a local authority, there is a case for preventing the installation of meters in private hire cars.

There was a considerable discussion in Committee on the operation of radios in private hire cars. I gather from the Minister's statements in Committee that he is much opposed to the idea that a licensing authority should allocate private hire car licences on the basis that a radio will not be installed in the vehicle. I do not share that view. There is a case for seeking to protect the traditional taxi trade in Edinburgh from what could be the development of cowboy part-time operators using their vehicles and creaming off the important weekend taxi trade. With the present depression, the bulk of the earnings of taxi drivers and those involved in the taxi business in Edinburgh comes at the weekend.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the advantages of having radios in private hire cars is that in sparsely populated parts of rural areas, if someone urgently wanted to use a private hire car he would be able to contact one that had a radio? If that car were not available, the driver would be able to contact someone else who could offer his vehicle for hire. It would be similar to the idea of citizens band radio and would be of great advantage to rural areas, especially the sparsely populated parts of them.

Mr. Strang

The hon. Gentleman makes a legitimate and fair point. The position is different in urban areas. I am sure that that view is shared by the majority of Glasgow Members. Much of what they were saying in Committee was equally relevant to Edinburgh, although there are certain differences. The situation in remote areas, especially the area that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) represents and other areas further north in the Highlands, is completely different.

When the Minister introduces the regulations—they will have to come before the House—I hope that he will seek to avoid ruling out conditions which a local authority might wish to make, unless there is good reason for doing so. I want local authorities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow to be free in dealing with the important taxi business. I hope that the House will remember that we are not talking only of taxi drivers. There is a great deal of work associated with maintaining and servicing the black cabs. That will be especially relevant to the new type of vehicle, which presumably will take over from the traditional black cab. We must also consider the manufacturers of the black cabs. We are discussing an important indigenous service industry with an important manufacturing element.

I accept all that has been said about rural areas. The Minister should refrain from making regulations that will specifically prevent a local authority from continuing to protect—I use the word "protect" unashamedly—the taxi industry. It is an important industry, which provides a great deal of work and a valuable service to the public.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

First, may I mention new clause 5 together with the three amendments that refer to three different clauses in the Bill and that in many ways are three unconnected issues? The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) is suggesting that taximeters should be allowed to be installed only in taxi cabs and that, by implication, they should not be installed in private hire vehicles. The hon. Gentleman will remember the debate that we had in Committee.

It is discretionary whether those owning private hire vehicles wish to instal taximeters in their vehicles. If they decide to instal them, in an area that is licensed, they are bound by the conditions that apply to taxi cabs and their meters. Taxi cab owners have one advantage over private hire cars in that when the fare structure has been decided by the licensing authority only they have the right of appeal or objection. Private hire car owners should not have any such right, so there are swings and roundabouts.

Mr. Bill Walker

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Does he consider that a meter in a taxi cab relates to fares that are agreed or appealed against, but that in a private hire cab there will be no such fare structure available to the public?

Mr. Ewing

That is precisely the point that I was making. There will be a fare structure in the private hire vehicle. The hon. Gentleman obviously misunderstands me. Any private hire vehicle owner who decides to instal a taximeter will be subjected to the fare structure which has been decided by the licensing authority but against which he has no appeal. Only taxi cab owners have the right of appeal. Therefore, I prefer to leave the matter as it is in the Bill.

Amendment No. 162 relates to clause 9. It is interesting to note that the effect of the amendment—I am not being unfair to the hon. Gentleman, who did not say much about it—is to remove subsection (4) from clause 9. I presume that the hon. Gentleman is saying that local authorities can then make regulations on one group of subjects. Under the Bill as at present drafted, they would be obliged to take all the groups of subjects into account before they made a regulation. I am not happy about that either.

Amendment No. 161 relates to clause 10. I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about the conditions under which applications for a transfer shall be refused. The hon. Gentleman's amendment deals not with the conditions under which the transfer shall be made but with the conditions under which the transfer shall be refused. My hon. Friends and I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on the subject.

Amendment No. 163, relating to clause 13, suggests that taxi drivers' licences should be granted to those who earn a full-time living from driving. I accept that that is highly desirable, but I have the gravest doubts, which I am sure are shared by the hon. Gentleman, about the enforceability of such a measure. It does us no credit to introduce legislation that, once introduced, becomes unenforceable. For those reasons, my hon. Friends and I are not happy about the proposals that the hon. Gentleman has very fairly made.

Mr. Allan Stewart

My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) made a series of suggestions with great clarity and brevity. The Government are at one with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) in emphasising the importance of the taxi trade and its service to consumers in Edinburgh and elsewhere. As the hon. Gentleman fairly recognised, because of our anxiety we have made the major concession that we shall discuss later.

Although radios are not strictly the subject of the amendment, the Committee accepted—partly for reasons advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie)—that it would be unreasonable to deprive private hire cars of the right to have radios. With the spread of citizens band radio, one could have the anomaly whereby private hire cars would be the only vehicles on the road without radio communication.

We have no preconceived ideas about regulations and we hope that they will not be necessary. However, it seemed right that the Secretary of State should have reserve powers to make recommendations against any unreasonable provisions imposed by a local authority. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East recognised, the regulations must be considered by the House.

Mr. Strang

Is the Minister saying that it may be possible to avoid bringing forward regulations in this area?

Mr. Stewart

Yes. We hope that there will be discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the trade, that we shall achieve general agreement and that there will be no need for regulations.

On the general issues, I am in the slightly unusual position of agreeing more with the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemeouth than with my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire. New clause 5 deals with taximeters. The Committee felt—at the prompting of the Opposition—that it was reasonable for a private hire car to have a taximeter as a legitimate aid to the driver or operator in keeping track of mileage and as a protection for the public. The hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth rightly said that a meter in a private hire car is entirely discretionary. I emphasise to my hon. Friend that it will be an offence for the driver or operator of a private hire car fixed with a taximeter to charge higher fares than those fixed by the local authority. Meters must be inspected and tested in hire cars as well as in taxis.

As to amendment No. 161, we are aware of the anxiety about the position of a licence holder's widow whose livelihood is cut off suddenly when her husband dies. The Government have produced amendments to deal with the problem and we shall discuss them later. That will be in primary legislation. I would seek to reassure my hon. Friend about the general point of transferability. The Government are not against transferabiliy, whether as a result of death or another position, but we feel that, as at present, the matter can be handled by local authorities under administrative arrangements rather than by primary legislation.

As to amendment No. 163, my hon. Friend mentioned excessive hours for drivers. The hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth was right to say that a full-time taxi driver who works for 12 hours is unlikely to be more safe than someone who has worked for seven or eight hours in another job and who drives a taxi for a few hours in the evening. The key argument against my hon. Friend's amendment is that of workability. The proposal would be enormously difficult to enforce even if it were desirable in principle.

The final argument that I must put in the balance against my hon. Friend's arguments is the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East and conceded by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire. It is customary, especially in rural areas, for taxi drivers or hire car drivers to work part-time. The nature of the trade is such that it is insufficient to provide a full-time livelihood.

7 pm

I cannot accept new clause 5. There are also strong arguments against amendment No. 163, expressed by the Opposition as well as by myself. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend is reassured about what I have been able to tell him about transferability under amendment No. 161.

Mr. Walker

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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