HC Deb 08 July 1991 vol 194 cc690-5

  1. 193A.—(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that such of the provisions mentioned in subsection (2) below as are specified in the regulations shall not apply, or shall apply with modifications—
    1. (a) to all tramcars or to tramcars of any specified class, or
    2. (b) to all trolley vehicles or to trolley vehicles of any specified class.
  2. (2) The provisions referred to in subsection (1) above are the provisions of—
    1. (a) sections 12, 40A to 42, 47, 48, 66, 68 to 73, 75 to 79, 83, 87 to 109, 143 to 165, 168, 170, 171, 178, 190 and 191 of this Act, and
    2. (b) sections 1, 2, 7, 8, 22, 25 to 29, 31, 32, 34 to 48, 96 and 97 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (provisions requiring warning of prosecution etc. and provisions connected with the licensing of drivers).
  3. (3) Regulations under this section—
    1. (a) may make different provision for different cases,
    2. (b) may include such transitional provisions as appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or expedient, and
    3. (c) may make such amendments to any special Act as appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or expedient in consequence of the regulations or in consequence of the application to any tramcars or trolley vehicles of any of the provisions mentioned in subsection (2) above.
  4. (4) In this section "special Act" means a local Act of Parliament passed before the commencement of this section which authorises or regulates the use of tramcars or trolley vehicles." "

Mr. Chope

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 101, 138, 143 and 144.

Mr. Chope

This new clause fulfils an undertaking given in Committee in another place to consider an amendment on the application of road traffic law to tramcars and trolley vehicles which received unanimous support there.

Ms. Ruddock

This is an important amendment, which we very much support. It provides, as the Minister said, for the application of the road traffic law to tramcars and trolley vehicles. It is important that the Bill should provide for this type of regulation, due to the planned opening in October of the Manchester metrolink and light rail systern that includes an element of street running, which we support. As transport policy develops and as the Government join the common-sense consensus about new modes of transport, there will be more and more opportunities to use this measure to complement the provision of light rail systems that are used on roads, and also tramcars and trolley vehicles.

We support the amendment and are grateful to the Government for tabling it.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 18, to insert the following new clause—Applications for licences to drive hackney carriages etc.

  1. ".—(1) Part II of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (including that Part as it applies in any area at the commencement of this section) shall have effect with the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (1) of each of section 51 (licensing of drivers of private hire vehicles) and section 59 (qualifications for drivers of hackney carriages)—
    1. "(1A) For the purpose of satisfying themselves as to whether an applicant is a fit and proper person to hold a driver's licence, a council may send to the chief officer of police for the police area in which the council is situated—
    1. (a) a copy of that person's application, and
    2. (b) a request for the chief officer's observations; and the chief officer shall respond to the request."
  2. (2) Where any local Act contains a provision requiring a district council to be satisfied as to the fitness of an applicant to hold a licence to drive a private hire vehicle or a hackney carriage, the council may send to the chief officer of police for the police area in which the council is situated—
    1. (a) a copy of that person's application, and
    2. (b) a request for the chief officer's observations;
and the chief officer shall respond to the request."

Mr. Chope

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

The amendment concerns the licensing of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers by district councils. At present under the law governing the licensing of these drivers, district councils have to satisfy themselves that an applicant for a driver's licence is a fit and proper person. The council may require the applicant to disclose any past criminal convictions, but it has no power to check that information against police records.

The effect of the amendment is that when a district council has to decide whether an applicant for a licence to drive a taxi or private hire vehicle is a fit and proper person the council may copy the application to the local chief officer of police with a request for his observations. The chief officer must respond to that request.

The origins of the amendment are to be found in early-day motion 667, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), which relates to the subject. It was signed by, I believe, 180 other Members of Parliament. Although it will not be possible to bring the new clause into force immediately, for reasons that were explained in the other place, the aim is to complete the necessary process of consultation by 1 April 1992.

Ms. Ruddock

The Minister claims that one of his hon. Friends deserves credit for the amendment. However, it represents the successful conclusion of a long-running campaign by the local authority associations to enable them to obtain information from the police about whether applicants for taxi licences are fit and proper persons. The amendment is the Government's response to an amendment tabled by the Opposition in the other place.

The amendment is very much supported by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, an important organisation that has been campaigning, particularly on behalf of women but also on behalf of everyone in society, for greater personal security in the use of taxis and car hire. When he replies, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that he agrees with the trust that the police will require extra resources to carry out this task effectively. We very much support the amendment and are pleased that it has been tabled by the Government.

Mr. Hill

May I correct a few of the words of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock)? I am grateful for the tremendous help from the Association of District Councils. After I communicated with it, the association wrote to many local authorities. They were only too willing to make sure that Members of Parliament in their area signed my early-day motion. At the last count it had been signed by 193 Members of Parliament. An amendment was tabled that said virtually the same, except that those hon. Members who supported the amendment wanted the legislation to be in force before the summer recess. As I know how tight the schedule is, I thought that they were going a little far. In total, 220 Members of Parliament of all parties signed the early-day motion. I am grateful for their help.

The first real breakthrough came when the national association of taxi and private hire licensing and enforcement officers conducted a survey of 136 councils. When they replied, it was discovered that, in an 18-month period, 148 people who were already holding a taxi driver's licence had criminal records. That was but the tip of the iceberg.

The metropolitan area is well covered. It receives details of criminal records, but it is difficult for the chairmen of outside licensing authorities to reach the correct decision. For example, at a critical time, Southampton gave a taxi driver's licence to a person who had just been released from prison for rape. The chairman of the licensing authority, a Labour councillor, felt that it was his duty to resign. The licence was rescinded.

Such terrifying decisions, reached without knowledge of the facts, led me to believe that I should take up this important matter. The method is that every established taxi driver is sacrosanct; he will not need reassessing and it will not be necessary to go back into history. The chief constable is put under tremendous pressure. He will need not necessarily more police but more office staff to work the mainframe computers. Apart from obvious crimes, such as rape, who would want to hire a taxi driver who had been in prison several times for grievous bodily harm, child molesting, child battery or a sexual offence of any kind —even exposure to the public of his person? The chairman of the licensing authority will need a great deal of information.

I thought it unfortunate that the wording states that a request will have to be made for the chief officer's observations. It could have been beefed up a little, by making it mandatory for chief officers to obtain the names of applicants and to give the details of any criminal background to the chairman of the licensing authority without a request having to be made, but so be it. This is very good news for all of us.

I have in my hand a computer printout of the names of all hon. Members who signed the early-day motion. It makes an impressive list. Members of Parliament, of all parties, are very concerned about this issue. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said that this measure will come into operation in the not-too-distant future. I hope that he is not thinking of 12 months hence.

My local newspaper, the Southern Evening Echo, went to great efforts to find out about the rapist. One cannot do without such knowledge. Local people must know what is going on, and further information about other applicants must be disclosed.

Co-operation was shown by the East Anglian Taxi Association, whose secretary, Mr. Richmond, is here, and the Southampton Taxi Association, whose representative, Mr. Lankford, did much valuable work. Local authorities brought pressure to bear on me and other hon. Members. The Government should be congratulated on this measure. There should be no harping by the Opposition. The Lords amendment will be welcomed. It is the most important amendment to the Bill.

6 pm

Mr. Fearn

The Lords amendment applies to those who grant hackney carriage licences. In time, will it be extended to minicabs?

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

I am delighted to take part in the debate. This issue has concerned me for 15 years since the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 came into force. In 1976, I became chairman of Reading borough council's local transport committee and was almost immediately faced with this issue. It was said to us at that time that the legislation was an attempt to tidy up even earlier legislation, the Town Police Clauses Act 1847.

Almost immediately, there was a feeling that this loose end created danger for our citizens. I am delighted that borough councils such as Reading, where I served, and Thamesdown, part of whose area I represent, will feel that this loose end has finally been tidied up.

There is no doubt that women are afraid of using taxis at night because a taxi driver may have a criminal record and therefore be a potential threat. It is sad that taxi drivers with no criminal record and no possible problem in this respect are tarred with the brush of uncertainty. Women may choose not to use a taxi to get home at night because of that fear and therefore put themselves into greater danger.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will respond positively to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) and tell us that the provision will be brought into effect as quickly as possible. There could be an incident today, tomorrow or the day after which might have been avoided if the legislation had been on the statute book a few months ago.

Let us not forget the balance of the rights of ex-offenders. Much was said in this place and in the other place about the need to protect passengers—of course that is right—but offenders have rights which must be respected.

What observations does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State expect the chief officer to provide in response to a request by a local authority? Does my hon. Friend expect the whole criminal record of an applicant to be revealed to the local authority or only the parts that may be considered germane to the application? Will the chief officer merely be asked to say, "Yes, this is a fit person," or "No, this is not a fit person"? That is not clear from the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will make clear precisely what information chief officers should provide that will enable a local authority to decide whether someone is a "fit and proper" person to hold a taxi licence.

I warmly welcome the Lords amendment and I hope that it will soon be part of our legislation.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful to all those who have spoken in support of the Lords amendment. I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Test and for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) that we will implement this measure as quickly as possible. I mentioned the aim of doing so by 1 April next year, and that remains the Government's objective.

Of course, a cost will be associated with this provision. Work will be done on the details, and that is why we are consulting. The measure has wide-ranging application. A large number of taxi drivers and private hire vehicle drivers in England and Wales operate outside London—35,000 taxi drivers and 50,000 private hire vehicle drivers.

The provision will not apply to minicab drivers in London because, as the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) probably knows, at present there is no licensing system for those drivers. For that reason, the Government asked the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to consider whether we should introduce a licensing system for such drivers and, if so, what form it should take. I agree with what the hon. Member for Deptford said about the fine work that that trust does.

Mr. Simon Coombs

Will my hon. Friend answer my question? Will the chief officer reveal the whole criminal record or only part of it, or will he state whether, in his judgment, an applicant is a fit and proper person to hold a licence? It would be helpful to have an answer to that question.

Mr. Chope

Of course, that matter will be subject to discussions with the district councils, but at the moment we believe that the chief officer should disclose all convictions about which information is held nationally at the national identification bureau.

Mr. Hill


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I remind the House that hon. Members do not have the right to speak again, having addressed the House once. If the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) wishes to intervene, that may be permissible.

Mr. Hill

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to intervene. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary return to his statement on the commencement date of 1 April next year? Could not several pilot schemes be started? I think particularly of Southampton in this case. By 1 April, several dozen more ex-criminals may be licensed.

Mr. Chope

I cannot go further than I have gone already. I am sure that my hon. Friend's efforts will have gained their reward, in the sense that people who have been able to tell an untruth will realise that the day of reckoning is nigh. I am sure that that will inhibit applications from those with convictions which will soon materialise. I have no doubt that taxi drivers and private hire vehicle drivers with criminal convictions will wish to look for another profession before this measure comes into effect.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

If one person in four, or 25 per cent. of the male population, has already been convicted of an indictable offence by the age of 20, and one person in three, or 33 per cent. of the male population, has been convicted of a serious offence by the age of 30, it may be worth publicising which of those offences will disqualify an applicant and which can be admitted.

If one accepts the principles involved in the rehabilitation of offenders and wishes to make applicants more open about their convictions, people should know the ground rules. It is fine to give people a warning, but it may be useful if the Department of Transport and local authorities will consider publicising the details so that applicants can decide what information to give, knowing that they will confirm their honesty in giving their convictions and that those convictions will not necessarily disqualify them.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend makes an important point.

Question put and agreed to.

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