§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are present to assume your august responsibilities in connection with the Bill. I apologise, though not on behalf of the Bill's promoters, to right hon. and hon. Members for the fact that we are here all together at this time. It is an exciting time politically in the country, but particularly in respect of London elections. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means, had a difficult task in selecting the business to be considered tonight. I understand that there are four London-related Bills in the pipeline, so it seems that any choice that you made would include a London Bill.
The London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill is important, and although it is being promoted by Westminster city council, it is on behalf of and at the request of the London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities jointly. Section 87 of the Local Government Act 1985 states that a London borough may promote a Bill for its own borough or for another borough. Schedule 1 to the Bill lists all the 31 participating councils promoting the Bill out of a total of 33. The two exceptions are the City of London, which usually has its own legislation, and Camden, v, here I believe there was some problem with the passing of a resolution to include that authority in the statute because there was insufficient time to do so. I have since been told that two of the remaining 31 boroughs wish to be dissociated from clause 4 of the Bill, so 29 London boroughs—comprising a mammoth population represented democratically by councillors—have asked for the Bill to be presented in its entirety.
I have been surprised at the way in which the arguments encapsulated in the Bill have developed over the past few weeks, but only clause 4 gives rise to any aggravation. I draw to the attention of the House an instruction that I tabled yesterday, and which appears on today's Order Paper:After Second Reading of the London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill [Lords], to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill that they do not allow Clause 4 (Private Hire Vehicles) unless they are satisfied that it will not jeopardise the unique and valuable position of the licensed Hackney Carriage trade within London.I understand that that instruction has not been called, and I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for clarification.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
It may be for the convenience of the hon. Gentleman and the House if I say that, although Mr. Speaker has not selected the instruction, it will be in order for hon. Members to refer to it in the course of the Second Reading debate.
§ Mr. Hanley
It is not for right hon. and hon. Members to question why an instruction has not been called, but II understand that that usually occurs if it is believed that the issue enclosed by the instruction will be fully debated by the Committee when it seeks evidence from the various 1245 petitioners. I shall explain later the purpose of the instruction, but first I wish to dispose of those clauses which are not at all contentious.
The Bill before the House is the second of its type to be promoted. The first received Royal Assent in February. Like the Bill now under consideration, that measure conferred a variety of general powers on London boroughs. One of its most significant provisions related to improvements in the street trading code.
The Bill now before us was deposited in November 1988 and was allocated by the House authorities to originate in the House of Lords. Several petitions against the Bill were received in another place and hefty negotiations followed. The Bill went before a Committee of the Lords in October 1989, and subsequently was carried over to the present Session.
Apart from procedural provisions, the Bill contains five substantive clauses. Clause 5 concerns the restoration of water, gas and electricity services. It slightly amends existing legislation to enable a participating council to arrange, where appropriate, the reinstatement also of water supplies when they have been cut off. It is a social clause, and all the participating boroughs believe that it would be useful.
Clause 6 relates to crime prevention, and I am sure that no right hon. or hon. Member disagrees with its intention, which has been welcomed in principle by the Government. It will allow a participating council to engage in various activities described in the clause for the purpose of crime prevention. The Government expressed some reservations about certain details and negotiations are continuing. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) in his place as he is a leading authority on the subject of crime prevention.
§ Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)
Clause 6 appears to be an excellent provision, but perhaps my hon. Friend will explain certain of its features in more detail. Clause 6(5) states:Before exercising the powers of this section, a participating council shall consult the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis.My reading of that, having studied the rest of clause 6, is that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis will have to be consulted before any spyhole is fitted in a door or any grille fitted to a basement window. That seems a little excessive.
§ Mr. Hanley
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I had expected it as he is an expert at intervening and asking for explanations of greater length. My hon. Friend regularly requires lengthy explanations and very great patience needs to be shown to answer his questions. I will therefore accommodate him and speak as slowly as may be necessary.
London local authorities currently have no powers to undertake crime prevention activities other than incidentally through their housing, social services, and environmental health functions. As a consequence, they have relied on section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 to finance many crime prevention schemes. London boroughs have many calls on the funds available under that provision. As a result of that competition for finance, crime prevention measures have suffered from a lack of funding in a number of London local authorities.
1246 The problem has been exacerbated by the proposed changes to spending limits for section 137 funding brought about by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. Those changes, which will come into effect later this year, impose a ceiling on such funding of £5 per head of population. The effect will be that boroughs with small populations will have significantly less funding available. It is now proposed that London local authorities will have powers, including the power to spend money, to take measures conducive or incidental to the prevention of crime or to helping to alleviate its effects.
Clause 6 will enable local authorities to spend money on items such as security marking of belongings, the provision of locks and alarms for the elderly or disabled living in private accommodation and the improvement of lighting in buildings. There are also powers to provide counselling and compensation for victims where there is inadequate provision. In addition to spending money directly on crime prevention measures, local authorities will be able to make grants to voluntary organisations to carry out similar functions. I hope that that explains adequately some of the provisions, although my hon. Friend may wish to make a speech later.
Clause 7 is on liquor licensing. The clause has powerful support from the police. It will stop up a loophole in the liquor licensing laws. The details are rather complicated, but they involve a careful distinction between wholesale and retail selling.
Clause 8 amends the Croydon Corporation Act 1960. Under section 159 of that Act, Croydon borough council is limited to an expenditure of £500 a year for various activities, the principal of which is functions associated with town twinning. The limit, which may have been appropriate in 1960, is now unduly restrictive on the borough council and 30 years later it seems that the section should be removed.
I am a great advocate of twinning. My borough is twinned with the lovely towns of Konstanz in Germany and Fontainebleau in France. I am sure that £500 would not go far towards returning the excellent hospitality and friendship that we receive when we visit those two excellent towns. Croydon, too, should be twinned. The 1960 Act relates only to Croydon and I am sure that the twinning would be sensible and not over-expensive. I doubt whether there would be twinning with central American towns or even Soviet ones. Nevertheless, it would certainly help European friendship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport on his future position as Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities. That is a tremendous honour and he is exactly the right man for the job. His presence and that of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), who speaks for the Opposition, show that public transport is important in the Bill.
There are three petitions against the Bill, all relating to clause 4 which deals with private hire vehicles. If the Bill is given a Second Reading, the petitions will be referred to an Opposed Private Bill Committee which will have the opportunity to hear evidence from the promoters and the petitioners and to judge with the benefit of that evidence. The Committee will have the opportunity to consider the other provisions of the Bill and to require the promoters to justify them, if appropriate.
I have already read out the instruction to the Committee which I tabled but which was not called because it seemed superfluous to the activities of the 1247 Committee. I tabled it because I did not want anybody to believe that the Bill was intended to be harmful to the licensed hackney carriage trade in London. The black taxi trade is part of London—for many, it is London. Its quality is unique. Neither I nor the promoters intend to harm it and 29 London boroughs believe that the clause will not harm it.
There are many reasons for clause 4, but first I shall state my credentials for moving it because recently there has been some black propaganda about why I am moving the Bill. Some have said that it is a case of tail-end Charlie, that everyone else recognised the strength of the black cab trade and declined the job and I was the only one who did not. For the past three years I have been trying to promote a private Member's Bill on behalf of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Many hon. Members are patrons of that trust, which is based in the middle of my constituency. Diana Lamplugh, whose energy, enthusiasm, good will and good works are known to many right hon. and hon. Members, has been trying to introduce legislation to tighten the laws on minicab drivers. I know that many hon. Members refuse to understand the clause, but in the past week when I have been talking on television and radio many people outside have begun to understand that the clause is not anti-black-cab. If anything, it is anti-unlicensed-minicab. If people believe that the one follows the other, I should like to hear their arguments.
Of the many cases, I shall cite one in the Evening Standard which starts with a telling word:Another woman has been abducted, raped and assaulted after being taken for a five-hour ordeal by a bogus mini-cab driver.The clause would merely bring London into line with the rest of England and, for all I know, further afield—no more and no less. In London anybody, even a Member of this House, so long as he declared it in the Register of Members' Interests, could get an "A to Z", although that seems to be a luxury for some minicab drivers, get an old banger or even use an existing private car and set up as a minicab driver. All one needs is a few cards with a telephone number and one is away.
Not long ago I was provided with a minicab by a company in north Kensington which I was visiting. This is not apocryphal—it is an exact case. The driver, who seemed Nigerian or Ghanaian—later he confirmed that he was Ghanaian—asked me where I wanted to go. When I said that I wanted to go to the House of Commons, he asked what was my favourite route. I told him not to worry about that but just to take me there. He then explained that what he was trying to find out was what the route was. It turned out during our interesting conversation that he had been in this country for seven days as a holidaymaker and was earning a little money on the side. He could drive and the car was provided by his employers. He did not know London, although occasionally during his student days he had acted as a part-time taxi driver. He claimed to be a barrister.
That experience is all too common. It is almost comical. What is not comical is the type of example set out in the Evening Standard article and many others. Hon. Members may remember the case which darkened Christmas two years ago. A young girl with two companions left a pub in north London and asked a minicab driver outside whether his was the cab that they had ordered. He said yes. He took the two friends home and then made as if to take the young girl to her house, but did not do so. Over the following 1248 days the papers and television were full of the fact that the girl was repeatedly raped by the man who was described as a body builder. Eventually, three days later the case ended in a fatal crash in East Anglia. Over Christmas the public had little to think about but the fate of that poor girl, who was lucky to be alive at the end of her ordeal.
The sole reason why that happened was that the apparent minicab outside the pub had no plate. It was not a minicab, but posed as one. London is not in line with the rest of the country as London minicabs have no identifying plate. Indeed, they are not allowed an identifying plate. No woman can check to see whether there is a plate. Diana Lamplugh has tried consistently to change that. The article in the Evening Standard quotes her as saying:There's absolutely no way of telling an honest mini-cab driver from a bogus one, or one with a criminal record. There is no proper licensing of these people and attacks of this kind are bound to carry on. The driver should be vetted and there should be a sign so that people can see if a car approaching them is a cab.Clause 4 brings London into line with the rest of the country. The black cab trade, which has been vociferous in its publicity, has said that the Bill will do nothing to help and that there are many deficiencies in the legislation governing areas outside London. I agree wholeheartedly. The main publicity published by the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association states:Stop the minicab cowboys getting a licence to cheat".The black cab trade also states:The Bill does nothing to stop kerb crawling touts".No, it does not: there is already a law to stop such touts, but we have to start somewhere. My hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that the Home Office, through the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, is currently sponsoring an investigation into the activities of minicab drivers and the safety or otherwise of their passengers, particularly women and children. That investigation is costing the Home Office in excess of £20,000 and the objective is to introduce legislation to tighten up the activity of minicab drivers throughout the country.
In 1976 the rules which currently govern minicabs throughout the country were introduced, but at the direct request of the black cab trade those rules excluded London. In London minicab vehicles do not have plates on the back because the black cab trade did not want that. If the recommendations of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust are acceptable to the Government and to the Transport and General Workers Union and their representatives in Parliament, which basically means the Labour party, any Bill designed to cater for the entire country will be hybrid until we have a level playing field and London is in line with the rest of the country.
§ Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)
My hon. Friend probably knows more than most of us about the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the research that is being undertaken, about which I have read something, but how far has that research gone? Is work at the Home Office still in train? If so, when will the results be published?
§ Mr. Hanley
The research is still in train, at a total cost of £41,000. I have some of the earlier findings with me but I shall not delay the House by reading them out. I also have correspondence between the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the Home Office sent in the course of that research. It is expected that it will be finalised towards the end of the summer or by early winter so that legislation can be introduced next year.
1249 What we are introducing is not the be all and end all, but the provisions contained in clause 4 must be introduced before the recommendations of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which will cover all the country, can be introduced. Perhaps the House will decide that tonight is not the night to introduce the clause. Perhaps we shall have another year of delay and the rules that the House deemed suitable for the rest of the country in 1976 will not be extended to London. Perhaps some hon. Members believe that mincabs should remain without any identification on them, but that means that attacks similar to the one that I described will occur next year, the year after and even beyond.
I asked the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association what recommendations from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust it would accept. A letter sent by the LTDA says that this is not the right time to produce clause 4 because the trust is still carrying out its investigations. I therefore asked LTDA representatives what recommendations they would accept, but they said that they could not say what they would accept because they had not seen the recommendations. Such prevarication has been displayed for understandable commercial reasons, and it is born of the fear that trade will be lost as a result of the clause and the trust's recommendations. That understandable fear is groundless and regrettable.
I accept that clause 4 does nothing, as the LTDA has already pointed out, to stop "kerb crawling touts". It does not stop those who illegally ply for hire and stop for those who hail them. We cannot blame the clause for not stopping those practices—they are illegal, but that does not stop people breaking the law. It is for other authorities to arrest such people.
The LTDA has also said:The Bill will not control minicab fares".It will, however, ensure that taxi meters are used. In 1976 meters were thought necessary as it was felt that market forces would force out of business someone who charged extravagant fares on their taxi meter. I agree with the LTDA that the possession of a meter will give a veneer of respectability and value for money. No one can guarantee that a driver will not cheat on a taxi meter, but I will explain what local authorities will be able to do in relation to those meters. I appreciate that local authorities will be unable to fix fares, but we must hope that the Suzy Lamplugh Trust recommendations will do something about that.
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)
Central to my hon. Friend's argument is the proposition that before we can deal with the problem of the unlicensed trade we must have universal standards throughout the country. What advantages does my hon. Friend see in the regime operating under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, which governs the rest of the country, against the regime operated by the Metropolitan police, which governs black cabs in London? What elements in the scheme which operates elsewhere in the country are superior to those which operate in London under Metropolitan police control?
§ Mr. Hanley
That is an interesting point. Nothing is superior to the training, experience, standards of quality and service and quality of vehicles of the black cab trade 1250 in London. It is possible, however, for certain unlicensed minicabs to offer supreme quality and service. I should hate people to think that the whole trade is dissolute. There are people of the highest quality who are not drivers of black cabs but have wonderful minicabs of supreme quality and comfort and their services are used because of that. They are not always more expensive than black cabs. There are many honest people offering quality trade in the unlicensed minicab business, but in the general cab trade there is nothing superior to black cab training.
I understand that there are about 20,000 black cabs in London and 40,000 minicabs. I wish that there were 60,000 black cabs in London. Unfortunately, some people found that they could not operate black cabs in their area. After all, there would not be 40,000 minicabs in London if there was no need for them. Nevertheless, the House must understand that in my view the training that we give to drivers of black cabs is the best available in the world. I hope that when the Suzy Lamplugh Trust reports, something will be done about the training of minicab drivers. Does the Minister believe that there is room in London for minicabs as well as black cabs?
It is sad to think that the black cab trade does not want to see any improvement in the minicab trade because it fears that people might then choose minicabs, believing them to be as acceptable as black cabs. That argument has been put forward, although members of the black cab trade say, "That is not the position. We are not frightened of the minicab trade." Yet they resist the improvements of which I have been speaking.
They say that such improvements would not prevent women from being preyed on by bogus minicab drivers—simply because minicabs would have plates on the backs of their vehicles—even though people would know they were minicabs. While that would be an advance on the present situation, the black cab trade does not want that improvement to occur and would prefer the minicab trade to remain as it is. Nor does the black cab trade specify under what conditions it would allow changes to take place.
It is important for the House to consider just what restrictions do not apply to minicabs in London now. I accept that our proposals may not be perfect, but those who believe that the changes we propose should not be made must thereby disagree with the provisions of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976.
For a start, if a licence were granted, it would be good in any of the participating boroughs. In other words, a person licensed in Richmond to drive a minicab could drive in any of the other boroughs. Apart from two hon. Members of whom I am aware, all other hon. Members who represent London boroughs—Conservative, Labour and Liberal—accept that their councils have asked for the introduction of these provisions. Yet strangely, because they believe that they are under the instructions of, or are expressing the interests of, drivers of black cabs, they believe that their councils are wrong. Redbridge has disagreed and wishes to be dissociated, as does Greenwich, for different reasons.
I shall detail the restrictions that the measure would impose on minicab drivers in London, and the public may think it remarkable that they do not already apply. Section 46 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 says that the owner of a private hire vehicle 1251 requires a licence, as does the driver and the operator. So the owner, driver and operator require a licence from the local authority.
Section 48 says that the licensing of private hire vehicles shall be authorised by the council so long asthey are satisfied … that the vehicle is … suitable in type, size and design for use as a private hire vehicleand shall not beof such design and appearance as to lead any person to believe thatit is a black cab. If hon. Members believe that any of those restrictions are undesirable, let them say so. The vehicle should be desirable for the purpose for which it is being used. The vehicle should bein a suitable mechanical condition … safe; and … comfortable.That is a requirement of the 1976 Act.
The drivers of black cabs say that minicabs are not inspected to the same rigorous degree as are black cabs. I accept that. I wish that they were inspected to such a high degree. I am asking, however, that their condition be brought up to the conditions at least required by the local authority so that they are fit for the purpose. At present, any old banger can be brought on to the road as a minicab. Will my hon. Friends who object to the course that is being proposed say why they will not force minicabs in their areas to be fit for the purpose? Why will they continue to allow their constituents to drive unlicensed cars?
Under section 48 of the Act, a council may require signs to be displayed or prohibit signs from being displayed on vehicles. Although signs might be prohibited, there would almost certainly be a plaque on the vehicle, and should the licence he removed, the plaque would have to be returned to the council. There might also be an identifying badge for the driver, and that badge would have to be available and he seen by the passenger at all times.
I wonder whether the girl who was raped three Christmases ago, and her friends, had they seen the number of the driver or known the borough from which the minicab came, would have taken a different view. Indeed, had they known for certain that it was a minicab, they might have felt more secure. They might have remembered the number of the driver and of the cab or the name of the licensing authority. Because it did not have a disc, they might not have got into the car and that girl might not have met such a terrible fate.
Section 49 says that if the owner of a private hire vehicle transfers his interest to somebody else, he must notify the council of that. That seems fair. Section 50 says that the owner of a private hire vehicle must take it for inspection by the council when required, although the council may not require inspection more than three times a year. In other words, inspection could take place three times a year.
Hon. Members who are perhaps voicing the views of other interests say, "We do not believe that minicabs in London should have any restrictions in respect of quality and inspection. Let us wait until a more perfect law is available." They are saying, "Let us wait until more minicabs cause damage on our roads." Indeed, black cab drivers have told me that if a girl is raped after the Bill becomes law it will be my fault. That makes me anxious to push the measure even harder because I believe strongly that when my constituents telephone for a minicab they should get one that is fit for the purpose and know that the driver and owner are fit people and that the vehicle has been inspected.
1252 Not only should minicabs be inspected to ensure their quality, but the places where they are kept should be inspected. Further, if a minicab is damaged in such a way that its safety, performance or appearance is suspect, it should be repaired.
The owner of a minicab should have to provide a certificate of insurance. Incredibly, even that is not required at present before a person can become a minicab driver. The only requirement concerning insurance is the general one that applies to an ordinary car driver. Despite that, minicab drivers carry passengers for years, and if those passengers are injured they may not be covered.
Section 51 says that the district council will license anyone who applies to be licensed to drive a private hire vehicle unless he is nota fit and proper person to hold a driver's licenceor he has not held a full driving licence for at least 12 months. The council can attach conditions to the grant of a driver's licence.
The Metropolitan police computer is valuable in weeding out unfit people—people with sex offences recorded against them, for example, and people who might put the public at risk. The LTDA has said that the Bill would not improve Metropolitan police checks on driver criminal records. How could it? The Metropolitan police runs black cabs in London and owns the computer. Local authorities have no right to look at the computer. I wish that they could. I would like to see the establishment of a central authority with power to examine the computer, and put names through it, to see who has committed crimes. It might discover those who could be a danger to the public and who, therefore, should not be given approval.
Follow-up procedures should take place. If a person is found to be an "unreliable source", something could be done about it. Let us remember that at present that line of responsibility does not exist. The line of responsibility is first to the licensing body. Being the local authority, those who are licensed will be accountable to it.
Section 53 of the 1976 Act says that a licence shall be valid for up to three years and that the driver of a private hire vehicle shall produce his driver's licence for inspection if required. That seems a sensible provision, but it should apply before a driver goes on the road. At present, his driving licence need be produced only if he is stopped by a policeman and asked to produce it. But he could have been carrying passengers for years, perhaps even on a provisional licence.
Section 54 concerns the issue of drivers' badges, a subject with which I have dealt. I agree that a driver should wear a badge at all times and that it should be plainly and distinctly visible when he is driving a private hire vehicle.
Section 55 deals with the licensing of operators of private hire vehicles. It says that if it is believed that an operator is not a fit and proper person, he shall not be licensed, and conditions can be attached to the licence.
Section 56 concerns the booking of private hire vehicles. It says that a licensed operator must keep a record of all bookings that are accepted, that those bookings should be entered before the commencement of each journey and that the records must be available to the council or police on demand. In other words, it will be known where a car is, where it is going and what it has done. That will control many aspects of the minicab trade. I fear, however, that hon. Members will say that that would be undesirable.
1253 Section 57 states that applicants for those licences must submit certain information, and I have mentioned references. Many other items can be put on the application form to weed out those who are unfit to carry the public. Section 60 involves the suspension and revocation of vehicle licences, and says that the council can suspend, revoke or refuse to renew a vehicle licence. Section 61 relates to the suspension and revocation of drivers' licences and there is a similar provision for operators' licences under section 62.
In the last small batch of sections, section 68 states that an authorised officer of the council and a policeman may inspect and test a private hire vehicle that is licensed. Under existing legislation, they do not have to test them for the purpose of carrying passengers, but merely for normal roadworthiness, as with an MOT. Section 69 states that it is a criminal offence for the driver of a licensed private hire vehicle to prolong a journey unnecessarily either in distance or time. It is an offence for a person to drive too far or too long, and can result in a licence being removed. Hon. Members and licensed taxi drivers may say that that still does not stop fraud because taxi meters have a veneer of authority about them.
I recall the case of a Japanese business man arriving at Heathrow. This tale is not apocryphal, but true. He drove from there, in a licensed black cab, to the centre of London, where all three Japanese passengers were asked for the amount on the taxi meter. Not only minicab drivers are crooks. They exist in all walks of life. There are crooks in the House—[Interruption.]—perhaps. It has been rumoured that in the past, many years ago, there might have——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean that there were crooks among hon. Members.
§ Mr. Hanley
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that intervention, and I unreservedly withdraw my remark. In all walks of life there are those who may carry out their tasks dishonestly, even drivers of black cabs. Those who would carry out such crimes and elongate journeys, either through mileage or time, are a tiny proportion of the minicab trade and an even tinier proportion of the black cab trade, which is the best taxi trade in the world, and I would do nothing to harm it. I do not believe that the clause will harm them, and nor do the 29 local authorities promoting clause 4.
I have set out the requirements for carrying out business as a licensed minicab driver in the rest of the country, but not London. Will my hon. Friends say why introducing that legislation now is undesirable? Why is it undesirable for women to feel more secure because at least there is a licence disc on the back of a cab? Why is it undesirable to introduce legislation to provide that a minicab is fit for the purpose? Why is it undesirable to take references for minicab drivers? Why is it undesirable that, following an offence, a minicab driver, operator or owner should be taken off the road? I ask those questions time and time again, because the legislation, warts and all and imperfect though it is, should be introduced so that the law is consistent throughout the nation. Improvements to 1254 bring up to the standard of black cabs those minicabs that are not should be brought into line following the Home Office research.
My instruction on the Order Paper asks that the Committee should not allow clause 4 unless it issatisfied that it will not jeopardise the unique and valuable position of the licensed Hackney Carriage trade within London.What greater bona fides could I give than the fact that the promoters believe that if the black cab trade is harmed we should not proceed with clause 4? However, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association has rejected that statement of intention. I wonder why. Is it because it fears that if people feel that minicabs are slightly more respectable, less of a danger to women and children, less disreputable because the quality and state of their vehicles and their reputation is better they may choose to use minicabs, rather than be forced, scared, into black cabs? If that is the sort of confidence that the black cab trade needs for its business, I am ashamed of those in it who feel that.
People have come to my office during the past week and written me letters. There has been hysteria about clause 4. Hon. Members have talked to me in the strongest terms, and when I have explained exactly what is being introduced they have been aghast and said that they did not realise. I ask my hon. Friends present today to consider what clause 4 means and what rejecting it means.
If the speeches following mine show that hon. Members want to stop elderly and poor people from having their gas and water reconnected, delay crime prevention and victim support, not clear up vehicle licensing laws and allow Croydon only £500 for the purpose of twinning, hon. Members should say so. I ask the hon. Member for Deptford to take that point to heart. If hon. Members would like the parts of the Bill relating to those matters to continue, I ask them to allow me to listen to their speeches and make their decisions later.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
My hon. Friend mentioned vehicle licensing. He must be the first to confess that clause 7 is pretty short. From what it says, it appears that it proposes to extend off-licence sales in London. As the House will be only too aware, one problem we face today is too many off-licence sales for liquor consumption in the street. The purpose of the Licensing (Amendment) Act 1989, which Parliament in its wisdom passed last Session, was to introduce more flexible hours for on-licences to get liquor drinkers off the streets, and back into pubs where they rightly belong and can be supervised by a publican, who risks losing his licence, livelihood and even his home if he does not supervise drinking properly. That would appear to be an extension of off-licence drinking, which has serious——
§ Mr. Hanley
I doubt that any contributions will be brief this evening.
The clause is powerfully supported by the Metropolitan police and tightens up a loophole in the law. If my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) wishes to know anything further—I have always wanted to say this to an hon. Friend—I shall write to him.
§ Mr. Hanley
I shall not give way as I am just about to end. I know that my hon. Friend, who is always present on such occasions, will want to make his own exhaustive speech. The debate would not be the same without him.
The promoters and I will willingly listen to the arguments. However, the people listening to the speeches following mine will hear that it is not just me, the so-called tailend Charlie, who has been mugged by private hire car vehicle operators to introduce a clause to give them total respectability. My speech represents the interests of 31 London boroughs for most of the Bill and those of 29 boroughs for all but clause 4. The people of those boroughs elected the councils that have approved a Bill for women in London who do not want to fall prey to bogus taxis and minicabs, children who have to be picked up from school by minicab and all those who, although they wish that a black cab would take them, find that it is difficult to get one. I ask hon. Members to explain carefully why they do not want what has been passed by Parliament for the rest of the country. If you seek to do away with this for London, you should seek to repeal the legislation in the rest of the country, and seek to explain why you believe that women——
§ Mr. Hanley
I fully accept your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that we may privately discuss your thoughts on this, and I am sure that you will agree with me wholeheartedly.
Suffice it to say that I will listen to all the contributions which follow. If I feel that hon. Members are likely to put in jeopardy those parts of the Bill which I have explained and with which all hon. Members must agree, I will ask if they will allow me to intervene.
§ Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)
I should explain to the House that I represent the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association. My representation is listed in the Register of Members' Interests.
This subject is very emotive and has been for a number of years. I oppose clause 4. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) that I am not against the rest of the Bill. The criminal clause is very helpful to boroughs all over London, and there is no doubt that the other parts of the Bill will be helpful for London as a whole; but I am concerned particularly about clause 4—so concerned that I put down a blocking motion.
Before I give reasons for my opposition, I would just like to look at what has happened to the Bill. It started off with 52 clauses and has arrived here with a mere eight left. Much of it was taken out in the House of Lords.
Last year, the Government produced a Green Paper—or, at least, it was rumoured that they would produce one; it never actually arrived. Rumour had it that the Green Paper might contain some provision for the licensing of minicabs, but the Government in their wisdom decided to withdraw it. I believe that we heard no more about the licensing of minicabs because, back in 1976, the Government decided that the licensing of minicabs would be inappropriate in London because of the special situation of the black cab.
London is very different from the rest of the country. Without doubt, it is a special case. In other large cities 1256 —Birmingham, Manchester and so on—one will see black cabs, but not in anything like the numbers that one finds in London. I believe that the Government decided at that time that, although it was right to license minicabs in other areas, if they were to bring in the type of legislation that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes has described, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, for London, it would have a dramatic effect on the whole of the black cab trade. As a result, we have seen an increase in the number of black cabs in London, and we shall see an even greater increase as time goes on. The provisions in the 1976 Act as described by my hon. Friend would be dangerous for London, and I want to explain why.
Let us take the taxi meter first. We have heard that drivers of minicabs will have to register with the local authority in order to have a meter but that they will be able to charge whatever they like, as long as that charge has been registered with the local authority. In the black cab, however, the prices on the meter are governed by legislation. The Government decide each year what the fare to be charged in a black cab will be. This will cause a difference in fare structure, and people with minicabs will be able to charge whatever they like.
What about tourists? London has an abundance of attractions for the tourist—the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham palace, the Tower of London and all the others; indeed, the black cab itself is a great tourist feature. The many thousands of tourists will be charged exactly what the minicab driver wants to register with the local authority and charge per mile. There have been many cases of tourists arriving at Heathrow and travelling by minicab to central London and being charged something like £100. That is well known to the black cab trade, to the Department of Transport and to the Metropolitan police. It is very difficult to catch such people. It means that we can never compare like with like, because minicabs will charge one amount which they can choose and register, and black cabs will be charging an amount which is controlled by Government.
Let us now look at safety and the danger of a woman being raped by a minicab driver. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond has said about the tragic cases that he has described, but the problem is that, when those cab drivers register with a local authority, their backgrounds will not be investigated. In the black cab trade, before a licence is granted, the background of a driver is investigated and he is checked for a possible criminal record. This means that, although minicabs may carry a plate, we will be unable to stop undesirable people driving minicabs.
This legislation, therefore, is not a vast improvement. In many ways, we would all like to see a much greater tightening up and improvement, but this is not happening. This Bill will not lead to any more investigation of drivers' backgrounds——
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend is very patient and did not intervene in my speech, and I will try to resist intervening in his, but, under the private hire vehicle provisions of the 1976 Act, section 57 has the power to require applicants to submit information and references. I have answered the point about the police computer. If any of that information were found to be inaccurate, the licence could 1257 be revoked. As regards the airport, my hon. Friend must recognise that minicabs have restrictions on plying for hire at such places.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I feel that I have answered those points.
§ Mr. Bendall
I do not think that the points have been answered. The point I am trying to make is that, if a minicab driver goes to register with the local authority, under the provisions of the 1976 Act his background cannot be investigated in the same way as that of a black cab driver. My hon. Friend referred to a minicab driver who did not know the route. Black cab drivers in central London have to spend two years "on the knowledge" to gain a green badge.
If a black cab driver charges the wrong fare or refuses to take a passenger, he can be reported to the Metropolitan police. For some offences, the driver would lose his licence for a considerable time. In fact, I have known black cab drivers to lose their licences for ever if the offence was very serious. Therefore, the regulation of black cab drivers in London is stringent. I should like the provisions of the 1976 Act to be strengthened outside London, because people are far from happy about some of the things that are going on.
The black cab is unique to London. The laws to regulate and control black cabs have stood the test of time. Many of them go back to the days of the hackney carriage. They have evolved over many years. It would be tragic if there was to be a decline in the black cab trade, which might happen with the piecemeal legislation which is proposed. The Bill would lower standards.
Black cabs have to be inspected twice a year. My hon. Friend referred to vehicles in the provinces being inspected three times a year under the 1976 Act. If they were, it would be all right, but that does not happen. Black cabs in London are inspected twice a year by the Public Carriage Office. I cannot see 32 London boroughs setting up individual inspection areas and making their own arrangements for the licensing of minicabs. There might be different rules and regulations in each of the 32 boroughs. Nothing in the Bill provides for the overall registration or inspection of vehicles. It would be disastrous if different arrangements applied in the 32 boroughs.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the standards applicable to maintenance might be different in each London borough? If that were the case, there would be a hotch-potch of regulations which it would be impossible to enforce.
§ Mr. Bendall
Although certain standards are set out in the Bill, I find it difficult to believe that all 32 London boroughs will set up inspection arrangements to ensure that cabs are roadworthy. Inspection will be costly. Appointments have to be made. Sometimes there are long queues of black cabs waiting to be inspected, and the carriage office cannot get through all the work. If it is difficult to get through the inspections at the moment, what would happen if an additional 60,000 vehicles had to be inspected? I do not think that the Bill would lead to an improvement in vehicle maintenance. The only slight improvement is that the driver would have a badge and there would be a plate on his vehicle.
1258 In regard to kerb crawling and touting, we all know that for many years it has been illegal for minicab drivers to ply for hire, but the drivers take no notice of that. If we go to Charing Cross or any London station on a Saturday night, or to the west end when the theatres and cinemas close, we see many mini-cabs plying illegally for hire. The Bill will not stop that. If mini-cabs are licensed, they will be given an air of respectability. The public will think that it is legal for them to ply for hire. When that happens, where will the black cab trade go?
§ Mr. Bendall
My hon. Friend has put the words in my mouth. It will go down the drain. What is the point of a black cab driver spending two years on the knowledge, which is very costly, if a minicab driver can ply for hire? I am sure hon. Members have seen people with little maps in front of them riding motor cycles around London; they are learning the routes. It takes enormous concentration and time for someone to learn the knowledge. Who will bother doing that if people in minicabs can charge more? People will not take the trouble to learn the knowledge if they think that they will not get a square deal. Kerb crawling will continue, and more and more minicab drivers will ply illegally for hire. The Bill will not stop that.
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend is expressing a genuine fear of hackney cab drivers. I am a great fan of the black cab trade, and I would not advise anyone to travel any other way. But if a minicab touts for business currently, there is no way he can be stopped unless he is arrested on the spot, because it is an arrestable offence. At the moment, all one has is his number plate.
If a person touts for business after clause 4 becomes law, there will be an identifying mark on the back of the cab. It will carry the name of the licensing authority and a member of the public could say, "I saw that cab stopping when someone put up his hand. That is an offence and his licence should be taken away." The licensing authority could do that. If clause 4 becomes law, it will be easier to catch up with drivers who tout for trade.
§ Mr. Bendall
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I do not think that that would happen. Often people are happy to get a minicab late at night when they come out of a theatre or a club. The Bill would give minicabs an air of respectability, and as a result they will tout and kerb-crawl more than they do now. There is no way in which that can be stopped, because there are only five enforcement officers in Greater London, and—given the number of minicabs in London—that would be a joke.
I do not want to see the destruction of the black cab trade. That could happen if we do not compare like with like, and the black cab is given a rough deal compared with the minicab.
There are other consequences of the Bill that my colleagues have not thought about. The unique black cab produced in England comes in two forms: the Metro and the Fairway—the 4X—which is a famous cab produced in Coventry. Large numbers of those cabs are now exported to, for instance, Japan and Kenya. In the event of a reduction in the number of people purchasing black cabs and not prepared to do the knowledge, our export industry would suffer. If black cabs were not produced in great numbers, people would not buy them, because they would no longer be able to compete: they would be downtrodden, 1259 as it were, by minicabs crawling along and touting for business. Eventually, our export industry could be destroyed, as no one would be buying black cabs for home use.
Another problem is the enormous number of fleet cabs. If the black cabs were to disappear, there would be unemployment in the factories producing them, and among drivers. The back-up servicing would also be hit. I do not know if any of my hon. Friends are aware of it, but behind the black cab trade there is an enormous back-up service in little railway arches. If there were no black cabs to service, what would happen to those firms? That would start up a continuous problem, and I do not know where it would end.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes that there are not enough cabs in outer London. Whereas inner London is called the green badge area, outer London is the yellow badge area. In outer London, drivers used to have to train for two years or so. Outer London is split up into geographical areas, and the number of those areas has now increased. The Public Carriage Office and the Government are trying to reduce the time for the knowledge training in outer London, which in due course should increase the number of black cabs available in outer London.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes said, the public feel safer in a black cab. Those cabs are purpose-built for safety. They have been specially designed over the years to be used in large cities and conurbations such as London. The cab has a first-class turning circle, which other vehicles such as minicabs do not have. Surely we should be encouraging those black cabs in our cities, as we already have enough transport problems in London. The black cabs are part of the co-ordinated transport system of London. They are purpose-built vehicles with the right turning circle, the right safety and the right insurance. We should be discouraging the wrong vehicles, such as the minicabs——
§ Mr. Bendall
As the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) points out, someone will soon try to step into our export markets. Japan and Germany are already working on a cab. It would be tragic if something that is unique to Britain, which is helping our exports, were ruined.
Let me say a few words about the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes that I admire what it is trying to achieve, and in no way do I want to stop those achievements; however, I do not want to see those achievements used to the detriment of others. The black cab trade has been built up since the early 1900s. It would be tragic if taxi drivers asked what was the point of paying £18,000 or £19,000—with hire purchase—to buy a specialised black cab when they could buy an old banger to do the job. There would then be a lowering of standards and the ruination of the taxi trade. While I sympathise with what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve, I think that it would be tragic if, as a result of the Bill, the black cab trade in London was ruined.
Black-cab drivers are highly intelligent people, interesting and well read in politics and other matters. They are always happy to discuss politics, and no doubt many hon. Members in the past few weeks have been 1260 tapped up about the Bill, as they are concerned about its possible effects. I hope that my hon. Friend does not think that he is being got at too harshly.
In the years that I have represented taxi drivers in my constituency, I have always found them generous and kind people. My hon. Friend may not be aware of the amount of charitable work that they do, such as arranging visits to coastal resorts for disabled children. That takes place because of the closeness of the trade and the uniqueness of the black cab. We do not want to lose the black cab: that would be a tragedy for London, and a tragedy in general.
I am not attempting to stop the progress of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, but the black cab must be preserved in the years ahead.
Although they seem to be staying neutral tonight, last year the Government seemed quite happy for many cabs not to be licensed, but they have tried to help by improving the yellow badge area outside London and in a number of other areas which will be added to the scheme. I learn from my friends in the trade that that improvement has already started. Many more people have applied for yellow badges in those areas, and I am sure that all this will help to build up the black cab trade, not hasten its decline. That is why I am worried that, even before the improvement gathers momentum, the laws for London might be changed. If we were talking about somewhere outside London where there was no black cab trade, I should have no hesitation in supporting the Bill, although I should like more stringent controls applied outside London.
One of the greatest anxieties of the black cab drivers is to do with minicabs being able to charge whatever they like, and being able to ply for hire. One night in Birmingham recently, the police decided to purge illegal minicabs that were plying for hire. A great deal of police time and a great many police were involved in the exercise, and they caught about 45 people that evening.
More recently still, there have been many similar problems in Reading. I quote, for example, from the Bracknell Post, which, in an article headlined "Unsafe scandal of town cabbies", states:A major crackdown on Reading's private hire minicabs has revealed 40 per cent. have been carrying passengers in cars branded unsafe".That is covered by the 1976 Act.An investigation by Reading Borough Council and police has revealed some drivers have been carrying passengers without proper insurance".That too is covered by the 1976 Act.A borough council spokesman said: 'If they were involved in an accident these passengers would not have been able to claim a penny'. In the past five months, 19 drivers have lost their licences because they did not have passenger liability insurance.These people have been caught, but many are not caught, and the article goes on to prove that the 1976 Act is not working properly because it is not being properly enforced by local authorities.
If we introduce measures similar to the Act in London, we shall be in danger of ruining our entire black cab trade, and that would be an utter disaster for London.
§ Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
It is irritating enough to find oneself on the Front Bench on the evening of the local government elections but it is even more so to find oneself here to discuss a private Bill which, although undoubtedly well intentioned, signally fails to 1261 live up to the claims made for it in clause 4. The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) said that the promoters did not intend clause 4 to harm the black cab trade. We accept that assurance of intent, but the effects that are anticipated are a matter of judgment and opinion. That is why the instruction to the Committee tabled by the hon. Gentleman is no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome to the differences between us.
We accept that the promoters' intention is to use clause 4 against the disreputable part of the minicab trade, but our concern is that the clause cannot achieve the objectives of safe and fair travel—objectives which I believe we all support for the taxi trade.
Over the past few weeks we have made our position clear to the Labour-controlled Association of London Authorities, and we understand that it now accepts the need for reconsideration. We further understand that both Labour-controlled and the Tory-controlled associations have sought to control minicabs because of the problems which are clear to all of us who live or work in London. We sympathise entirely with their concerns.
Of course, there are legitimate operators who try to offer a fair service, but there are many who are disreputable. All too often, minicab vehicles are in a bad condition, dirty and unsafe. All too often, the drivers have little knowledge of the routes, and some of them are unsafe drivers. I am especially aware of the dangers that women riding in minicabs face in a capital city. A recent survey for London Weekend Television revealed that 4 per cent. of women questioned said that they had been attacked by drivers when travelling home at night. Obviously, action is required.
There is an unmet demand for taxis in London and it is women, particularly, who increasingly seek safe transport after dark and in suburban areas, where other form of public transport may be infrequent or even non-existent at night. Hiring a minicab is often the only solution to getting home for a person without a car or for a driver who has sensibly left the car at home when attending a social function.
We in the Labour party are clear about the need for the taxi trade as a vital supplement to other forms of public transport in London. The problem is that the best service in the world—the black cab trade—has not been able or allowed to keep up with growing public demand. That is Labour's starting point—the recognition of a public need and of an existing service with the highest possible public standards. The challenge for all of us—politicians, local authorities and the cab trade—is how to raise the standards of all who would ply for hire, and how to satisfy the increased demand for taxi travel.
Would clause 4 meet our aims? The answer is a definitive no. We accept the case that has been pressed upon us, particularly by the Transport and General Workers Union. I acknowledge an interest, albeit not a personal financial interest, in that I am sponsored by that union. I wish to rehearse the critique of clause 4 put to us by Peter Martindale of the TGWU. First, no uniform or minimal training standard for drivers is required in the clause. Evidence given to the Lords in Committee shows that even the most enthusiastic councils do not propose to provide training but propose only to test topographical 1262 knowledge of their own boroughs. It is therefore possible that a person who is licensed will know one borough but will not know the next into which he frequently moves.
No uniform or minimum vehicle standard is required in the clause, which is appalling given that these cars will travel about 100,000 miles a year. The vehicles will not be required to have a partition fitted for driver protection or for the passenger privacy which a GLC survey showed women preferred in cabs. The vehicles will not be required to be wheelchair accessible. Wheelchair accessibility is one of the radical and progressive steps that have been taken by the taxicab trade in London and for which all travellers with disabilities are deeply grateful.
Worst of all, the lack of access to police records means that there would be no certainty that drivers licensed under clause 4 would not have a record of criminal personal assault or even rape. Clause 4 lays down no means of vehicle recognition or identification, and the absence of unified standards will make recognition of licensed vehicles impossible. London's many visitors will be particularly vulnerable to "licensed minicabs", as opposed to "licensed cabs".
Residents of London will also be confused by the use of standard saloon cars. A third tier will arise illegally, as it has elsewhere, and will find it easier to work where it can masquerade as legally licensed vehicles. No borough would be able to tackle vehicle recognition because it would not be able to exclude vehicles which had been registered elsewhere.
The Bill does nothing to tackle the problem of the many people working in the minicab sector who have little commitment to the industry. Therefore, the sanctions imposed by the Bill in terms of the removal of licences would be ineffective.
§ Mr. Hanley
If legislation were introduced to tighten the points that the Transport and General Workers Union has made—and if a clause similar to clause 4 were introduced to bring London into line with the rest of the country before that legislation was introduced—would the hon. Lady and her party support it?
§ Ms. Ruddock
The hon. Gentleman presents a hypothetical case. More important, he fails to acknowledge that London is quite different from the rest of the country. Black cabs operate to extremely high standards which do not exist elsewhere. London's high standards should be observed by the rest of the trade. We should not seek to introduce a two-tier system which, where it exists, has immense problems.
§ The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo)
The House will be interested by the hon. Lady's speech. It sounds as though she is in favour of minicab licensing in the circumstances that she has described. She is making an important statement on behalf of her party. The House would appreciate her confirmation that she is in favour of minicab licensing if those conditions can be achieved——
§ Ms. Ruddock
As you suggest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should proceed. I will make it absolutely clear to the Minister and his colleagues exactly where the Labour party stands on the issue.
§ Mr. Hanley
Is the hon. Lady saying that, even if legislation were introduced to tighten the deficiencies of the minicab trade in London along the lines recommended by the Transport and General Workers Union, it would be unacceptable to the Labour party as it would refer to minicabs in London? Is the Labour party's intention that there should be only black cabs in London and not minicabs? I am seeking clarification from the hon. Lady.
§ Ms. Ruddock
The hon. Gentleman is seeking not clarification but to put words into my mouth. The standards that should be met by the cab trade already exist in London—those to which black cabs are subject.
I said how local authorities would not be able to deal with the difficulties of vehicle recognition. The Bill does nothing to tackle the problem of the many working in the minicab sector who have little commitment to the industry. Therefore, the sanctions that the Bill provides would be ineffective. The loss of a licence in one borough would not preclude the driver from working in another borough.
As the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes acknowledged, the Bill provides no powers for boroughs to set fare levels within their own area, let alone within London; nor does it require meters to be fitted to the vehicles that they license. Experience from outside London shows that there are many difficulties with legislation such as this, and there is a case for tightening the legislation which applies to other parts of the country. The recent "Operation Cinderella", which has already been referred to and which was carried out by the police and trading standards authority in Birmingham, showed how acute the problems are.
We believe that the Bill is incapable of reforming the fly-by-night nature of minicabs. At best, it might provide a veneer of respectability. Its failure to lay down training for drivers, design and maintenance of vehicles and methods of operation will not develop the commitment to the taxi industry that is shown by London cabbies.
London's cabs are acknowledged to be the best in the world. It is our contention, therefore, that we should first consider providing all the public with a first-class taxi service by extending the regulation of the best system in the world while phasing out minicabs, which are agreed to be unsatisfactory. In other words, we should base London's future cab service on what is good rather than what is bad.
That is the policy of the London Taxi Board, which is made up, I remind hon. Members, of the following cab trade representative bodies: the London Motor Cab Proprietors Association, the Cab Fleet Owners, the Joint Radio Taxis Association, Taxi Radio Circuits, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the Owner Drivers Society and the cab section of the Transport and General Workers Union.
The Labour party is not arguing a protectionist case. Indeed, we believe that at times cab drivers have been their own worst enemies. It is not difficult to find a Member of Parliament who can testify to the number of refusals by black cabs to accept his or her fare home after a late-night sitting.
There must be reforms in the licensing and training of black cab drivers to achieve expansion of their numbers and greater flexibility in the hours that they are prepared to work, while still maintaining the same high standards.
I am delighted to learn of the changes that are already under way, to which the hon. Member for Ilford, North 1264 (Mr. Bendall) referred. The London Taxi Board has negotiated a change in the knowledge of London training with the Public Carriage Office to allow new cab drivers to obtain a licence for a sector of suburban London in approximately four months. The scheme has been implemented since last September, and in January there were 990 participants who, after a high standard of training, will get a first-class job. The new scheme is capable of rapidly expanding London's cab trade to the suburbs, where it is most needed.
The taxi board has published draft proposals which, when adopted, will apply the most up-to-date techniques to the knowledge and, with the adoption of computerised radio systems in cabs, will facilitate further expansion in the cab trade to provide thousands of first-class jobs and a first-class service for all, particularly for those with disabilities and for women. Cabs are wheelchair-accessible and have an internal partition between driver and passengers for discretion and safety, which women acknowledge that they particularly want.
The Labour party supports the London Taxi Board's plan to reform the knowledge training. Standards will be maintained, but the time taken to complete it will be reduced. I believe that that is the key to making more cabs available.
I have no doubt that the travelling public want a safe, recognisable vehicle with a meter showing a regulated fare driven by a well trained and vetted driver. Those standards are available within the black cab trade, and they are the standards for which we should aim, but they are not met by clause 4 of the Bill.
Labour's opposition is not a case for inaction or an acceptance that London should continue to play host to a huge, unregulated sector of minicab businesses. We accept the need for urgent action. To that end, we are setting up a working party to include trade and local authority representatives. We will publish a plan through which, we believe, the problem can be solved. It will bring into being sufficient numbers of cabs of sufficiently high standards—the black cabs—to meet the need. It will take time, but we will outline the programme and recommend it to the Minister and Conservative Members. It will be consistent with our overall plan for an integrated and co-ordinated public transport system, under the auspices of a strategic authority for London. Planning for London, especially in transport, must be on a London-wide basis. We know that the two London boroughs associations support that general view. We hope very much that through our working party we can point the way towards solving what we acknowledge to be a very serious problem.
I am happy to support other clauses in the Bill, which provide a number of sensible measures. As a London Member with an inner-city constituency, I welcome all reasonable measures for crime prevention and the means afforded to local authorities to take those measures. I also welcome the proposal to reinstate essential supplies. My constituents, who are among the poorest in London, are the most likely to find themselves facing debt and the misery and insecurity of cut-offs under this Government's policies.
§ The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo)
It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene now to give the Government's view. I shall be brief as I know that many hon. Members wish to speak.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) for the way in which he so helpfully introduced the Bill. I thank him for his kind words about me, but must emphasise that they were based merely on newspaper rumours. I have the greatest sympathy for him, because his motives for introducing the Bill have come under attack. I have no doubt that his motives were excellent, as was made quite clear in his speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) put the contrary view with equal skill. That has led to an interesting debate.
I am pleased that all hon. Members who have spoken have paid tribute to the taxi trade in London. I shall remind the House of the view that I gave on 11 May 1989, when we concluded the review of taxis in London:In the case of London, it has become clear that the high standards of service and propriety offered by taxis are highly valued by … the public. London passengers enjoy a quality of service based on purpose-built vehicles developed to enhance driver and passenger comfort. Their roadworthiness and cleanliness are ensured by standards set by the Public Carriage Office, and drivers must pass through rigorous driver testing."—[Official Report, 11 May 1989: Vol. 152, c. 486.]I announced at that time that the Government had no intention to legislate.
Before I deal with clause 4, which is central to the debate, I shall comment on the other clauses. In general, the Government have no objection to the principle of London local authorities, as they are empowered to do by statute, promoting a Bill seeking additional general powers for the London area. With one exception—clause 6—all the provisions in the Bill to which Government Departments objected have been either withdrawn or disallowed by Committees in the other place. On clause 6, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, while having no objection to the purpose of the clause, considers that the powers are too widely drawn. Negotiations are continuing with the promoters to provide a more tightly drawn provision. I hope that the issue can be resolved satisfactorily if the Bill proceeds to Committee.
On the provision for licensing minicabs, when the Bill was introduced, the Government's response to what has since become clause 4 was that it seemed impracticable and that the case for licensing was not proven. The matter of practicability has since been addressed to some extent by the Bill's promoters, but I have to say that nothing has emerged greatly to strengthen the case for licensing.
With regard to practicability, the Government were concerned that simply extending the private hire licensing provisions of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 would create 31 separate licensing authorities and consequent scope for the cross-border hiring confusion that sometimes exists outside the capital. The amendment since tabled by the Bill's promoters making vehicle, driver and operator licences issued by one London council valid in any other participating borough should ease much of the cross-border problem.
However, we are still concerned that confusion may arise about the public's expectations of control stringency compared with that actually applied by individual licensing boroughs. For example, it is possible that licence 1266 applicants will migrate to particular boroughs where the most minimal standards required by the clause are applied, but then concentrate operations in more restrictive boroughs. No doubt such confusion could be overcome by the boroughs agreeing common licensing conditions, but it is only right to point out that there are still potential practical difficulties with the provision.
We considered the need to legislate on London's minicabs. Hon. Members may recall that the Department of Transport conducted a fundamental review of all taxi and private hire vehicle licensing legislation, which was completed in May of last year. During the review, reactions were obtained from the public, from licensing authorities and from those within the trades on the absence of minicab licensing in London. Allegations of malpractice in the trade were made then, as they are often made, but they were rarely supported by hard evidence. I was not content at that time to propose changes on the basis of the limited facts that I had before me. I felt that I did not have enough evidence about the extent of the problem, or sufficient evidence to suggest that licensing would deal with it. It was not clear in what way we could bring criminal record examination into play. For all those reasons, I decided against legislation.
Hon. Members have alluded to the Government's funding to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which is conducting research into passenger experiences with and perceptions of the London minicab trade to determine whether licensing is likely to make any difference to safety. The results of that research should be available 12 months from when it began, which was last January. Perhaps I should remind the House of what I said when I announced the Government's participation in that research:I believe that taxis in London provide a safe and reliable service, and that the same is generally true of minicabs too. However, I am aware that some people feel anxious about travelling in unlicensed vehicles. There is, at present, very little firm evidence to establish whether this anxiety is justified and I welcome the proposal to gather evidence on this point.There is a consideration, which some hon. Members have already touched upon, relating to the ability of licensing authorities to check on driver integrity. Complaints have recently been made to me by members of the licensed taxi trade, and in particular the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, about the alleged criminal element in the minicab trade and about the lack of provision for checks on drivers' police records in clause 4. It is right to point out that the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 does not give provincial licensing authorities automatic access to the police records of licence applicants either for minicab drivers or taxi drivers, and that consequently clause 4 cannot give such access to London authorities.
Hon. Members will appreciate that this is neither the time nor the place to address the broader question of disclosure of information from police records. It is an issue that I know the Home Office has been reviewing. Suffice it to say that, while some hon. Members might consider that the fact that clause 4 does not offer criminal record checks is a reason to oppose it, others might, on balance, support the principle of extending to London the controls available to councils in the rest of the country.
Those are the Government's views on what we consider to be the main implications of clause 4. I should stress, as was said when the Government's view was given in another place, that, overall, the Government's opinion on clause 4 remains neutral.
1267 I note that there are three petitioners against clause 4, and they will have the opportunity to present their objections to the Select Committee if the House passes the Bill. The Committee will be in a good position to examine in detail the issues involved and will have the added advantage of hearing expert evidence.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) made a powerful case for the principle of regulating the private hire trade in London, and particularly the minicab end of the trade. I was surprised that the Minister did not seem to have the same experience as many of us of the deficiences of the less reputable minicab operators. Many of us have had experience of drivers who do not know the basic elements of London geography. A year or so ago, I had the misfortune to be collected by a minicab that had been sent by a London radio station, which should have known better. After five minutes going in the wrong direction, it became clear that the driver had no idea how to get to the radio station. I had to direct him to the radio station, from there to Broadcasting house and then back to Westminster. That is not an unusual experience with such drivers.
We have all had experience of rusting vehicles with bits falling off them that are both unsafe and unsavoury in which to travel. There is also legitimate concern about the standard of drivers. I used to he a magistrate in the east end of London. A distressing number of offenders who appeared before me gave as their occupation either company director of minicab driver.
§ Mr. Cartwright
Yes, or both. That underlines the problems about which we are concerned.
I have had experience of another problem in the past year or so. That is the mushrooming of 24-hour a day minicab offices in residential areas, which set up without the benefit of planning permission. My constituents have all the noise of cars arriving, doors slamming, drivers shouting and radios blaring 24 hours a day. Although planning permission has not been granted, it takes local authorities a long time to sort out such problems. If they cannot enforce the planning regulations, there must be a question mark over whether they can enforce the powers given in clause 4.
The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes made a powerful case for the principle of regulation and the most stringent enforcement of high standards on the minicab trade. However, he did not persuade me, or other hon. Members, that clause 4 is the right way to achieve that objective. It is clear that the reputable end of the private hire trade wants some system of regulation, but it is also clear that it has reservations about clause 4. A number of us have received a letter from the London Private Hire Car Association dated 1 May. It says:Our reservations about implementation arise out of the problems that have occurred in putting into effect the 1976 Act outside London and the proposals that implementation within London should be by the 32 London Boroughs allowing for wide differences in requirements.Other hon. Members, including the Minister, have referred to that point.
It is ridiculous that 32 boroughs should apply different standards and introduce different systems and procedures. 1268 London is an entity. It is not a collection of 32 self-governing islands. It needs a uniform system and, if such a system is to be brought in, it should come after the most careful investigation by the Department of Transport and through Government legislation rather than legislation from the boroughs.
I am somewhat surprised that the London boroughs should be seeking these additional powers. Most local authorities are busy telling us with every breath that they can muster that they cannot use the powers they have because they do not have enough resources. Here they are in London, apparently looking for new powers—powers that need resources. We have already heard that they will not have access to criminal records so as to carry out the careful scrutiny of minicab drivers that many of us think is essential in any system of regulation.
§ Mr. Skinner
The hon. Gentleman said that he finds it strange that the 32 London boroughs are asking for extra powers, and I agree. However, there is a possible reason why they have been driven that way—the absence of a Greater London council. We have all agreed—even the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley)—that there is something wrong with the minicab trade in London. It is conceivable that the authorities, also agreeing, thought that somebody had to find some method of control and have come up with this, which is little more than a dog's dinner. They are trying to make a seven-course dinner out of a pan of boiling water. They are searching for some control, but that control should be exercised by a Greater London authority.
§ Mr. Cartwright
The hon. Member makes a fair case. It would have been a more persuasive case had the boroughs concerned been willing to agree to a standard system that each would have operated on a voluntary basis. It may have been easier to have it imposed by a supra-London authority, but if the 32 boroughs had wanted an effective system, it would have been better if they had got together and agreed that they would do it the same way. Sadly, that has not happened.
If the boroughs are to do the job effectively, they will need resources. They will have to take on staff, set up administrations and check vehicles. I doubt whether they will check them three times a year, which is what the Bill provides for, but if they are to do the job properly, duties will fall on them and extra costs will be incurred. We know that the boroughs will not get extra money from the Government, and I find it hard to believe that they have the money already. My local authority—poll tax-capped as it is—will have to cut its spending in the current financial year by £10 million. I cannot believe that it will have enough spare resources to take on this additional responsibility. We may be told that this scheme will be self-financing and that the income from licences will be sufficient to meet all the costs involved. Having been in local government for quite a few years, I am suspicious of anything presented as self-financing, because nine times out of 10 it turns out to be nothing of the sort.
Although this proposal is well meaning, it will create the impression of regulation whereas any system that flows from clause 4 will not provide the stringent and effective enforcement for which the public has every right to look. Therefore, I urge the sponsor of the Bill to withdraw clause 4.
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)
I begin by echoing the commendation of my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley). My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes has had to plough a difficult furrow in sponsoring the Bill. Much of the Bill is unexceptionable, however, and there is no doubt about his bona fides when it comes to clause 4, which has detained us this evening. It would be churlish not to admit that one of the greatest mistakes that one can make in politics is to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. My hon. Friend presented an interesting case that suggested exactly that—he said that we should allow some change to be made to the regulations on minicabs in London but less than that which many of us who intend to oppose clause 4 would wish. His intentions are clearly honourable and commend him greatly to all those who are concerned about the safety and regulation of the cab trade in London.
The rumours about the imminent move of my hon. Friend the Minister from one tower of Marsham street to another are rife. This evening, he handled the "on the one hand, on the other hand" argument with great dexterity. He proved the greatest of all adages in politics, which is that if someone cannot ride two horses at the same time he should not be in the circus. I have no doubt that on his move to the Department of the Environment to take up new duties, he will, if the appointment is confirmed, demonstrate dexterity as a bareback rider comparable to that of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a trapeze artist.
The title of the Bill is the London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill, not the London taxi Bill. I say that because I am especially interested, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes is, in clause 6, which relates to the crime prevention powers of local authorities. There is a respectable pedigree for the inclusion of the clause in the Bill by the authorities, not least the eighth Home Office circular of 1984. That circular stressed that the police alone could not be expected to be responsible for preventing crime in the community. It stated, in effect, that crime in the community could be prevented only when the community as a whole accepted that crime is its problem. As part of that, everyone has a responsibility, personal and corporate in his individual life and business life, to do something about crime.
The most telling illustration was that even the Department of Energy is responsible in part for the prevention of crime. In many London estates, the most frequently committed crime is that of breaking into utility meters. Coinless meters eliminate that offence, but the speed with which that sort of meter is installed is, or has been in the past, the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. There is a link with crime, even with a Department that is as far removed from it, ostensibly, as the Department of Energy. With local authorities, the link is even more powerful. The authorities have a key role in the prevention of crime, and one of my greatest regrets is that in general debate we do not recognise that local authorities, whether or not they are guilty of mini-imperialism, and whether or not it is right to restrict them to the provision of a number of basic services or to regard them as having a more general duty, have a 1270 unique status as enablers in the community to ensure that effective crime prevention measures are developed to the benefit of everyone.
Crime Concern is the charitable trust that I established in 1988, with Home Office support, to promote voluntary crime prevention. I am delighted by the interest that is being shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), who is a Government Whip. The trust has been working with many local authorities on the establishment of area crime reduction programmes, which are an effective implementation of the safer cities initiative. There are co-ordinators in post in Luton, Sandwell and Solihull, and recruitments are in hand in Kirklees, Halton, and Suffolk. Programmes are agreed in Peterborough, Plymouth, Walsall and elsewhere. It is being demonstrated in all these places that local authorities, hand-in-hand with voluntary organisations, and with the co-operation of the police, can be effective focal points for crime prevention initiatives.
My hon. Friend the Minister talked about the reservations that have been expressed by the Department of the Environment about the necessity of clause 6, and in some ways I share those reservations. The work to private dwellings and commercial premises described in clause 6(2) could be carried out by a housing authority, facilities for self-defence classes could be provided under education or social services powers, facilities for vocational training courses could be provided under education powers, facilities for counselling victims of crime could be, and frequently are, undertaken by local authorities or sponsored by local authorities under their social services powers, and many of the facilities necessary for the undertaking of research to aid crime prevention do not require particular funding. Many in the Home Office would argue that we suffer from a plethora rather than a dearth of research and that that is not a priority for crime prevention work.
There can be no great objection to the general move to put local authorities in the centre of the frame on crime prevention, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) said, but I share the reservations of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on whether the particular form of words in the Bill is necessary for the advancement of that objective.
Let me deal now with the notorious clause 4—words which must be strangely redolent to Labour Members, not to mention the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) who will in his time have entered into the odd debate on the significance of clause 4. However, I shall not embarrass him further. Suffice it to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall), who represents a substantial number of London black cab drivers, did an excellent job in cogently explaining why clause 4 is deficient. He was ably supported by the hon. Members for Deptford and for Woolwich.
I do not doubt that the London cab system is the best in the world. I know of no other system which provides the breadth of security, safety and reassurance to the casual user that is provided by the London taxi system. Not only is it a tourist attraction in itself, it is an ambassador at home for those here on holiday.
With some honourable and often hilarious exceptions, cab drivers are, in the main, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North said, charming, generous, witty, 1271 friendly, amusing and, most of all, they get to where they have to go honourably by the quickest route whether or not the passenger's first language is English.
Epping Forest is a far cry from Oxford, East where such was the surprise at my election that when I went to the drinks party afterwards my supporters said they they were delighted that I had won but that they never thought I would do it, implying that if they had thought so they would have been much more careful in selecting their candidate. At Epping Forest I learnt quickly that the constituency slogan was, "Tax are things for keeping down the stair carpet." I thought that that referred to income tax, but I later found that it had a more general application. My constituents are vigorous in their defence of free enterprise and a low taxation economy. As such, I value their opinions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes referred to his Ghanaian barrister who, after a week in Britain, decided to become a minicab driver without knowing the way to the House of Commons. I was surprised that my hon. Friend the Minister was unable to obtain sufficient evidence of the deficiencies of the minicab trade. I share the casual experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes, which I venture to suggest will be familiar to most other people who have used them.
The operation of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 has been less than adequate. Although well intentioned, sadly, that Act led to the creation of no fewer than three tiers of operation. The first is the London black cab. Beneath that comes the regulated minicab, and the third tier is the unregulated minicab. It is not exceptional to find a minicab driver who does not have a clue where he is going and who charges whatever fare he thinks one can stand according to the cut of one's suit—it is more likely to be the rule. The more that I speak to people about the Bill and about minicabs in general, the clearer it becomes that the experience I describe is the norm throughout the country. It goes beyond the instances recounted by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes.
When there is a system of using ordinary cars to which minimal alterations are made, and subject only to minimal servicing, a sub-culture is created—and that is where the danger lies. As to the attitude of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), who could not be present this evening, asked me specifically to make it clear that she, as a trustee of that trust, is very concerned about the operation of clause 4. As she points out, the woman who enters a minicab alone, and perhaps at night, is confronted by someone who she has never met before in her life. One can stop right there—one need not elaborate on that statement. The attendant risks if one cannot be sure that the person driving that cab is not someone whose criminal record has been examined, whose general bona fides have been scrutinised, and whose general temperament has also been tested by an examination process, are self-evident.
I move on from the assertion that one advantage of the well-regulated London cab system is that its drivers know where they are going to make the point that London cabs are safe in terms of the stringent standards applied by the Public Carriage Office. It is always amusing to hear cabbies complain in vitriolic terms about the scrupulous 1272 standards applied, but no doubt those standards operate in the interests of the general public—and they are certainly higher than the standards anticipated by the Bill.
I do not share the view that applicants for licences would flood to those boroughs where the minimal knowledge requirements applied. My belief is that they would flood to those where the least stringent servicing requirements were enforced. There certainly would be a minimum standard of minicabs—the standard of the least stringent borough in terms of inspection and servicing, which would be highly undesirable.
Not only are London cabs safe, but London cabbies are vetted.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a growing practice in the west end late at night of private cars plying for hire, and that to allow clause 4 to reach the statute book would exacerbate that situation? Given the incidence of attacks with which we are already familiar, a considerable number of Londoners, never mind tourists, would be placed at considerable risk if we were to permit a badly drafted Bill and an ill-advised clause to pass into law.
§ Mr. Norris
I agree with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North who made the telling observation that one usually needs a cab just at the very moment when they all seem to disappear. In those circumstances, any port is welcome in a storm. If a cab or what purports to be a cab pulls up late at night, the human reaction is to leap aboard. That is the danger and the nub of the matter.
I now return to the way in which cabbies are vetted because some elements have not yet been mentioned. First, we have heard about the requirement that they should be knowledgeable about the routes that they will ply. I take that as a sine qua non. There is every intention of referring to that requirement in clause 4. Secondly, as I remember vividly from that wonderfully amusing play by Jack Rosenthal called "The Knowledge", part of the tortuous process which the cabbie must undergo to obtain knowledge is a personality test. An endeavour is made to ascertain whether those who wish to ply for hire as a driver have the temperament appropriate to an extremely stressful job. That is an important requirement which we should not overlook.
The third and most important requirement is the thorough vetting of the applicant's criminal record to ensure, rightly—we cannot stress this too much—that whoever holds one of those prized green or yellow badges is fit to take not only a person whom he or she has never met but property to a distant location. The present facilities in London allow for that. It is common for cab drivers to be entrusted with property to be conveyed from one point to another without the consignor having to worry about the bona fides of the driver. I have known of young children being entrusted to cab drivers to be taken from one address in London to another. That is the most marvellous commendation and one of which to be proud.
The crux of the argument is whether we should allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. A contrary principle is also involved. It is that if we allow clause 4 into law—it would effectively mean that the standards of the 1976 Act would also apply in London—we shall live with it for many years to come. That is the reality of legislation. 1273 We would deem ourselves to have dealt with the problem. That simply would not be good enough because the problem, as evidenced elsewhere in the country, and as many hon. Members know, is that the standards laid down by that Act, albeit with good intentions, simply have not created the right conditions. It is no exaggeration to say that people are less safe outside London in areas where the black cab system does not operate than they are in London when they use black cabs.
I notice the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) in his place and attentive as ever. He, too, has drivers as constituents and shares my experience and that of all London Members and London regional Members that that is undoubtedly the case. One of the greatest assets of our transport infrastructure is that we can rely on standards applied by the Metropolitan police in the licensing of London cabs. Sadly, that facility is not available to those who pick up a cab, for example, at a station in most of the major termini in Britain.
§ Mr. Norris
I note that my hon. Friend, who has several interested constituents and who is my distinguished neighbour in Wanstead and Woodford, wishes to intervene.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Is the problem partly that we would deem ourselves to have dealt with the problem and that many female passengers travelling in London now would also believe that? They would be lulled into a sense of security that would be illusory and false.
§ Mr. Norris
That is absolutely correct and my hon. Friend expresses the problem well. The veneer of respectability—a phrase used by other hon. Members—would apply to minicabs if the clause was passed into law and that is the precise danger to which my hon. Friends have alluded.
The dilemma is whether we allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good and oppose the clause or accept that we cannot allow a deficient principle to pass into law. There is ample evidence elsewhere in the country to suggest that the principle is deficient. With the greatest regret and with the greatest respect for the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes, I believe that we must reject the clause.
The clause does not relate to competition and it is not a proposal designed to extend a great free-market principle to the carriage of persons about London. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North said that between 800 and 1,000 new licences are issued every year and that the new system of licensing those from outer London in more zones than hitherto is likely to lead to an increase in the number of those licences issued. The hon. Member for Deptford also said that something is being done about that problem. We are making progress to help those who cannot currently obtain a black cab licence.
One may argue that competitive forces may, on occasions, drive down the cost of a minicab, but that is not surprising when one considers the investment required for safety in the proper London cab and the investment required in terms of time to acquire the "knowledge"—cab 1274 drivers estimate that it takes up to 650 hours. In terms of a reasonable rate of pay, the time spent to acquire it represents an investment of about £4,000.
A minicab can be cheaper than a black cab, but is it like for like? I am afraid the answer is no and my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford has not accurately observed that we would still be offering London people a two-tier system, if not a three-tier system—one which operates dangerously elsewhere. Sadly, the lower two tiers would be deficient.
I hope that many of the Bill's provisions can be retained, but, if necessary, my hon. Friends and I who live with this problem in London will be obliged to oppose its further passage. In many ways I regret that decision, but I hope that the House will accept that the price we are being asked to pay in terms of clause 4 is too high.
§ Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)
This is a modest but nevertheless important Bill of a completely uncontroversial nature except in one respect.
One gives wholehearted support to the provisions in the Bill which deal with the restoration of water, gas and electricity services. Such restoration will be of concern to many of our constituents who are confronted with that problem. I welcome all that is said about crime prevention. It is vital that we should spend more time and money on counselling the victims of crime and on the other laudable crime prevention measures outlined in the Bill. I hope that all those measures will proceed—but not clause 4, which is of a different ilk. It has been hastily brought to the House, it is ill-conceived and I fear that it would have the reverse effect of that intended by the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley).
§ Mr. Boateng
I will give way in due course. I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that he has erred in this respect.
§ Mr. Boateng
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Considering that good is being held back by the presence of clause 4, that clause should be allowed to disappear quietly so that the good may proceed. I commend that course to the hon. Gentleman. I give way to him in the hope that he will accept my advice, in which case I need speak no more.
§ Mr. Hanley
I rise simply to explain to the hon. Gentleman, who was not here earlier, that this is not a private Member's Bill. I am not its promoter. I am merely introducing it on behalf of 31 London boroughs, including all the Labour London boroughs. The hon. Gentleman should therefore not blame me for any aspects of the measure of which he disapproves. He must blame his own council, which is a sponsor of the Bill, including clause 4.
§ Mr. Boateng
The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. I was not for one moment blaming him for doing what he feels that he must do.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) is being somewhat disingenuous. If in the course of this debate he would tell the sponsors of the Bill, who are usually present at such discussions, that to hon. Members 1275 who represent London constituencies—including myself—clause 4 is totally unacceptable and must be removed from the measure, he could report their view to the House before the conclusion of the debate.
§ Mr. Boateng
My hon. Friend is as perceptive as ever. The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes is being somewhat disingenuous, though not for the first time.
§ Mr. Hanley
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is himself being disingenuous in view of the fact that the sponsors include his local authority and that of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith).
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is conducting research with a grant of up to £20,500 from the Department of Transport and is endeavouring, with the Police Foundation, to raise a matching sum. I hope that that research will continue in the coming year and will result in legislation which the hon. Members for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and for Islington, South and Finsbury will be able to support.
It is with regret, in view of their remarks, that I give an undertaking that the promoters, including the hon. Gentleman's local authority, will ask in Committee that the clause, together with schedule 2, be withdrawn.
§ Mr. Boateng
One welcomes those occasions when good sense prevails, particularly in the case of one's own local authority. I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes promoting the cause of my local authority so ably and effectively, and I hope that he will promote the welfare of my area on other occasions, too.
We must not overlook the serious point that is raised. I am a patron of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which does much good and important work, but that has not stopped me opposing clause 4 root and branch. Because I support the work of the trust and because safety and security, particularly for women, are vital, we must nurture, enhance and extend the role of the black cab rather than do anything to diminish it.
The House must review carefully the results of the research being undertaken and it may be necessary for legislation to be introduced in due course. I am sure that that will be welcomed by hon. Members in all parts of the House when it comes forward. For enabling the debate to take place, those who promote the Bill deserve our thanks.
I want us to bear in mind one fact that was put most cogently by a constituent, Mrs. Elsie Dellar of Kensal Rise, who wrote to me. The House will need to consider what she said when it considers legislation once the results of the research currently commissioned are available. She asked me and my colleagues to answer the following few, but vital, questions. First, she asked whether the licensed minicab drivers would have to give up two years to do the knowledge. She further asked:Would their vehicles have to have a complete overhaul once a year? Would their meters be sealed and checked? Would they be checked for any criminal offence or record? Would they have medical checks? Would they use vehicles specified by the carriage office? If to all these questions the answer is yes then by all means license them because they would be what they should be—a London cabbie.That says it all.
Mrs. Dellar continues that if the answers are no and my colleagues and I vote for minicabs to be licensed, we will be giving the public over to any person who wants to drive a car without any effective control whatsoever over the 1276 circumstances in which they drive it and the peril that they may cause to the public. Such people must be viewed with a great deal of circumspection.
It is impossible to water down the qualities that need to be possessed by London cabbies, who are the pride not only of our nation, but of all those from wherever in the world who care about how these tasks are performed. Cab systems in the rest of the world are deficient in every respect when compared with ours. We must build on the useful debate that we have had today and of which we shall no doubt hear more so as to strengthen the black cab's position and not diminish it.
§ Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)
I shall make two short points because I know that many other hon. Members want to speak. First, I am not convinced of the need for a separate licensing system for private hire vehicles in London. I have used minicabs and black cabs for many years, and my experience of both has been satisfactory. I endorse everything that has been said about the standards of black cabs and accept that that is the standard for which to aim. However, I am not satisfied, from the anecdotes that have been told and the results of the review carried out by the Department of Transport, that there is sufficient hard evidence to justify the sort of system that we are being asked to consider tonight. I want to see much more hard evidence before I am prepared to be convinced about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) complained about being in a minicab with a driver who did not know the way to the House of Commons. That may happen with minicabs, but I do not regard that as sufficient hardship to require an elaborate licensing system for minicabs.
The review being undertaken by the Home Office and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has plainly not yet finished. It appears that it will not be completed until later this year, possibly next. The case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes shows that the consideration of the need for such legislation should await the conclusion of research that establishes the need for such a system.
Secondly, I am not convinced that, if the licensing of private hire vehicles in London is needed, individual London boroughs are the right bodies to exercise that control. We are down to 29 London boroughs now and it is very unsatisfactory to have a secondary system for London supported by only 29 boroughs. If I am right in detecting what has been said by Opposition Members, that number is likely to fall pretty quickly, so it is even more unsatisfactory that the system should enjoy such piecemeal support.
I am struck by the fact that there was no consultation between the London boroughs and the Licensed Taxi. Drivers Association or the formal associations and trade representatives of the private vehicle trade in London before this legislation was begun. It is a sign of inadequate consideration and preparation. After the House had decided in 1976 not to have this particular form of control for London, surely substantial study, consultation and consideration were required before attempting to change the position which Parliament had established by a deliberate act some 14 or 15 years earlier.
I strongly oppose clause 4, and I am delighted to hear that, on the strength of tonight's debate, my hon. Friend 1277 the Member for Richmond and Barnes has committed himself to withdrawing the clause in Committee; retention of the clause would have made it extremely difficult for me to support the Bill.
§ Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)
Ambrose Bierce, the late 19th century American satirist, defined a taxi as a tormenting vehicle in which a pirate jolts you through devious ways to the wrong place, where he robs you. That is not a description which I would like to apply to all minicab drivers, but some of them certainly come into that category. I must be a little careful in what I say about minicab drivers because I have several minicab firms in my constituency which, being in outer London, is not very well served by the black cab. On the whole, they do an excellent job, but there are pirates among them.
I have been extremely worried about the effect that clause 4 would have had on the black cab system which is well proved, well tried and excellent—a system without peer in the world and one at which people from other countries look with envy, wishing that they had something like it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) on the way in which he introduced the Bill this evening, and I congratulate him warmly on the way in which he realised what hon. Members thought about clause 4 and decided to withdraw it. He has conducted himself extremely well tonight, and the whole House will be grateful to him.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I join the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) in welcoming the important statement of the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) in an intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The decision of the hon. Gentleman and of the sponsors of the Bill to seek in Committee to withdraw clause 4 is welcome and means that we can allow the Bill to receive its Second Reading.
Some provisions in the Bill, especially in relation to the restoration of water, gas and electricity services, and to crime prevention, are welcome and we wish them good speed on to the statute book.
Clause 4 concerned me greatly. Many of my constituents drive black cabs and clause 4 represented a real threat to the black cab service in London. That threat has been effectively removed by the statement of the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes. We will want to see what happens to the Bill in Committee, but the hon. Gentleman will stand by his word and we will have seen the last of clause 4. Perhaps more considered measures can be brought before us later which will pose less of a threat to the invaluable service which black cabs provide in our capital city.
§ Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)
The Bill has very few of its original clauses. When it started its life in the other place it had 58 clauses, but only eight are left. Some are very important and we wish to see them pass into law. Clause 4 has caused many of us difficulty. I welcome the 1278 agreement of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) to seek the withdrawal of the clause in Committee. It was ill-advised to include it in the Bill for the simple reason that we are very fortunate in London to have such an excellent taxi service. The black cab system is the envy of the world and it would be wrong to undermine it in any way. Where it is competing with minicabs it is subject to unfair competition.
I am in favour of the law descending upon minicab firms and drivers who do not conduct their business properly, but it is not right to do it in the way suggested in the Bill. Some months ago a constituent of mine who was riding in a minicab found herself in an accident in which she was injured. The driver managed to take her out of the cab, put her on the roadside and drove off. She later contacted the office where she had made the booking but the people in the office denied any knowledge of the booking. That is typical of many minicab firms. I hope that the Government will consider requiring minicab drivers to have proper commercial insurance. They should suffer hefty fines if they fail to comply with the requirements.
I am convinced that clause 4 was the wrong way to approach the problem in the centre of London. There are not so many drivers of black cabs living in my constituency as in Ilford, North, but there are a considerable number and they have expressed concern about the measure. We have to ensure that they are properly looked after and that their taxi system is not undermined. I should be the last to say that we should not have ample competition, but certain standards must be met. Women need a safe and reliable form of transport, especially late at night. They need to know that they can get home without being molested, and that they can rely on the driver to have integrity, not to have a criminal record, to have adequate insurance and to be properly qualified in driving skills, so that they know where they are being taken. The black cab service is second to none.
I am delighted to welcome the Bill, and I wish the remainder of it a successful passage through the House.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
As a provincial Member, I had not intended to barge in on the cosy deliberations of London Members. However, I am increasingly alarmed at the terms of clause 4. Anything up to half my constituents come to London every day to work, and they are proud of the standard of service provided by the black cabs in our great capital city, but clause 4 would undermine that service.
As a west Kent Member, I have many constituents who serve as licensed black cab drivers in London. They are alarmed at clause 4. Their concern can best be summed up by a letter that I received from Mr. J. L. Rogers of Istead rise in my constituency:In London we already have a licensing authority, the Metropolitan police, which produces the most envied taxi service in the world. This Bill will completely undermine this service, as people who would want to sign on to do 'the knowledge', could see a much easier option to become 'legal'.Clearly, whether or not the promoters intended it, clause 4 would do much to destroy the quality of the taxi service in London. Therefore, I was reassured to hear from the sponsor of the Bill—my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley)—that he intends to 1279 recommend that, in Committee, clause 4 and its attachments be withdrawn. On that basis, I do not intend to oppose the Bill.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
As another outsider, I came back from my constituency tonight, as I am worried about clause 4. It must be said to the House that clause 4 must go. Anything less would not he acceptable. I must declare an interest as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union and as a practising barrister, but I have also drawn experience from my days as a member of Sheffield city council. Unfortunately, in Sheffield we did not have a large number of black cab drivers, so we had the minicab problem.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) spoke about clause 6. When I served as deputy chairman of a licensing committee many years ago, I experienced the problem that it was not possible to place restrictions on where drivers went. We did not have enough knowledge about them, and, more important, we could not control their vehicles. The black cabs meet those criteria. As I said earlier, I am worried about carriage—especially at night—by persons who are not vetted in vehicles that may not be of the right standard and quality. That is a matter for further concern, and we should examine it in the near future in a wider area than London.
I see that the Minister for Public Transport is in his place. I have heard horrible rumours that he is about to move, but most Ministers are about to move in the near future, so it matters not. If he does move, perhaps his successor will mark my words: there is a considerable feeling in the House that we should examine licensing, vehicle structure and control, as it is causing increasing concern. One reads and hears of attacks on innocent members of the public by minicab drivers who adopt a "here today, gone tomorrow" approach, whose names are sometimes unknown, and whose vehicles are sometimes uninsured and probably began their first journey of the day from the scrap yard and returned to it on their last journey of the evening. Throughout the day, they place the lives of human beings at risk.
As for clause 6, I welcome the idea of crime prevention, but I do not think that the clause goes far enough. Its wording is very loose and, in Committee, I should like the Minister to reassure London local authorities that he will help to fund crime prevention. We have all been faced with rate capping in the past; my own local authority has just been poll tax-capped.
When deciding how to spend money—for instance, on supporting bodies that give assistance to victims, on neighbourhood watch schemes and so on—local authorities, when capped and when their standard spending assessments do not include money for crime prevention, cannot encourage it. I gently suggest that money is necessary for preventing crime. The Home Office does its bit for crime research, but local authorities have an enormous part to play in bringing home good crime prevention ideas locally; they in turn might just bring down the crime rate and that would enhance the quality of our lives.
However, all this requires money. Clause 6 is not broad or detailed enough, and perhaps it needs tidying up in 1280 Committee. On this important night, when local authorities are being elected and re-elected, I suggest that, before the Minister departs for other shores, he might persuade his colleagues that there could be some mileage in putting a little Government money into helping local authorities with crime prevention.
I apologise for trespassing on the affairs of London, but as an outsider who lives and works in London occasionally, I thought that some things had to be said.
§ Mr. Hanley
The whole House has given a vote of confidence tonight to the licensed hackney carriage trade. I repeat what I said earlier: it is the best carriage trade m the world. The promoters—the 31 London boroughs—did not and do not intend any harm or insult to that trade; they merely wanted to protect the public from the deficiencies in the London minicab trade and in the minicab trade throughout the country by bringing into London legislation exactly the same as that which has served the rest of the country for the past 14 years. This legislation was perhaps to be a precursor of tougher legislation, following important research by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.
There are many other important clauses in the Bill and it is clear from the thoughtful contributions by hon. Members on both sides of the House that people would be sad if the other clauses failed. So the promoters have reluctantly—but understanding the feelings of the House—given a firm instruction to the Committee to withdraw clause 4 and schedule 2. I hope that, in return, those who have petitioned the Committee will feel that they can withdraw their petitions so that the Bill can become an unopposed measure in Committee. I know that I have the assurance of the licensed taxi drivers' trade; I do not yet have the assurance of the TGWU——
§ Ms. Ruddock
I cannot give an instruction for the withdrawal of the petition, but I will certainly recommend it and expect that it will be accepted.
§ Mr. Bendall
I do not want to delay the House, but the LTDA will do likewise. It cannot speak for others, of course. I believe that there is a third petition.
§ Mr Hanley
This is a most happy but strange occasion. I am acting on behalf of 31 London boroughs and I find myself thrilled to have failed so magnificently but achieved the withdrawal of the three petitions.
The House will welcome the fact that the Bill is now an unopposed private Bill. In that spirit, may I ask that it be given a Second Reading?
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time and committed.