HC Deb 29 October 1985 vol 84 cc873-5

Lords amendment: No. 38, to leave out clause 16 and insert the following new clause— 16. The provisions of the Town and Police Clauses Act 1847 with respect to hackney carriages, as incorporated in any enactment (whenever passed), shall have effect—

  1. (a) as if in section 37, the words "such number of and "as they think fit" were omitted; and
  2. (b) as if they provided that the grant of a licence may be refused, for the purpose of limiting the number of hackney carriages in respect of which licences are granted, if, but only if, the person authorised to grant licences is satisfied that there is no significant demand for the services of hackney carriages (within the area to which the licence would apply) which is unmet."

6.30 pm
Mr. Ridley

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It will be convenient to take at the same time Lords amendment No. 381, schedule 6, in page 149, leave out lines 30 to 38 and insert— "(3) Without prejudice to paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to this Act, the grant of a taxi licence may be refused by a licensing authority for the purpose of limiting the number of taxis in respect of which licences are granted by them if, but only if, they are satisfied that there is no significant demand for the services of taxis in their area which is unmet.—

Mr. Ridley

This group of amendments changes substantially clause 16 from the form in which it left the House. The main change is to the criteria according to which a district council may refuse to grant a taxi licence to limit the number of taxis, a rather convoluted provision that we had taken from the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, which had attracted some adverse comment in this House and was the subject of litigation in the Scottish courts. It has been replaced by a much clearer set of words.

As well as that change to the criteria, the form in which they are expressed has been changed in response to constructive criticism in another place. The amendment to the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 is now made by reference rather than textually. Such a method of amendment is, generally, the inferior one, but in a case such as this—for which the antiquity of the statute is to blame— it produces a clearer result, and there is no need to refer to the interpretation Act or to the "prescribed distance", a concept which is a throwback to the last century.

I should perhaps emphasise that there is no fundamental change in policy. It is the Government's clear view that the restriction of numbers in any industry is justifiable only in the most exceptional circumstances and that the strict limits which many district councils have imposed have been bad for the trade and for its customers. The Bill opens the way for the taxi trade to expand into new markets, in particular those at shared fares. It would be a tragedy if it failed to take advantage of these opportunities, kept out new blood and remained wedded to the past. It would be a tragedy if the only way someone could start a new small taxi business was to spend many thousands of pounds on buying someone else's plate.

The Bill does not, however, and never did, simply abolish quantity control. It allows a district council to refuse a licence application so as to limit numbers—as well, of course, as on grounds of unsuitability—but it puts the onus on the council of satisfying itself that there is no significant unmet demand. Any applicant who is refused a licence will be able to appeal to the Crown court, and I am sure that the court will test whether the council had good grounds for its refusal.

It will not be sufficient that the existing taxi trade says that it can cope or that it has always been the council's policy to have no more than, say, 87 taxis. If a new applicant intends to tap new markets—for instance, by running registered local services—I do not believe that any council could refuse the licence. But if there is demonstrably an over-supply of taxis in a district, as there may be in some cities, a licence could be refused.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify, in relation to the Scottish position, whether he is requiring district councils to review from time to time the number of taxis in their areas? He will be aware that I raised that matter in Committee.

Mr. Ridley

The amendment changes the wording of the Scottish measure so that the arrangements are the same as for England. Therefore, what I have been saying applies equally to Scotland.

I hope, therefore, that all district councils will review their policies and act liberally, as the law will require, and that we shall no longer see the sort of under-supply that has led to taxi plates changing hands at ridiculous prices. We shall, of course, monitor carefully what happens, and take everything into account in the review of taxi and hire car legislation that we shall undertake once the Bill has been implemented.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

I argued in Committee, as did a number of other hon. Members, that the Bill as originally drafted, by a liberal interpretation of the Scottish wording, allowed a local authority effectively to bring back quantity control by the back door. The amendments will make it much more difficult for a local authority to bring back quantity control without good reason. Consequently, I welcome them.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

What extra funds does the right hon. Gentleman intend to make available to local authorities for the monitoring of the position?

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues, in particular the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), for their responsive attitude when I brought to them a group of taxi drivers from my constituency. I am grateful for the consideration that Ministers have given to the points that were made and the way in which the Bill, as amended, will implement the requests that were made.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for taking on board many of the points that have been made during the passage of the Bill. I am certain that the way in which he has listened to the representations made by taxi drivers and licensed operators will be appreciated in that trade. I particularly welcome his undertaking to review carefully what happens as a consequence of this legislation. That is important, because there is much scope for change and certain things may not go as planned. To have that undertaking for the future will give reassurance to this important trade.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I welcome the amendment. Its presence may have something to do with the fact that the noble and learned Lord Denning, as well as my noble Friend Lord Winchilsea, spoke on this issue in the other place. Common sense has at last prevailed in the description of the situation. For example, from the point of view of Liverpool, when all controls were removed, there were too many taxis on the streets with too few customers in them, and that led to much unrest and bickering between taxi operators.

Had the amendment not been proposed, I should have feared the worst in my constituency, certainly out of season. However, even in season, in Ryde esplanade and elsewhere, there would have been many arguments, because we already have too many taxis in competition. The amendment will introduce some balance into the situation, and for that it is to be welcomed.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) and for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for their remarks. It is known that we shall be reviewing the whole of taxi legislation. That will be a mammoth task, but it will provide an opportunity to monitor the progress of this provision to see that it is operating correctly. As I said, we shall keep a close eye on it to make sure that all is well.

The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) is that we, not the local authorities, will be doing the monitoring, so no question of extra expense for local authorities arises.

Question put and agreed to.

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