§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]2.36 pm
§ Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)
First, I declare an interest; I represent the London Taxi Drivers Association. My representation is listed in the Register of Members' Interests. In this instance, however, I am not representing only the association. I believe that I shall be speaking for the vast majority of black-cab drivers in London. Therefore, this is a significant debate.
I initiated the debate because of the speculation that has recently appeared in much of the national press and the London evening press. I refer especially to an article that appeared on 2 March in the Evening Standard, which said:Mr. Norris has now decided to impose the same minicab regulations in London as the rest of the country.That is causing great concern and distress to most of the black-cab drivers in London, who now number about 20,000.
I am sorry that I have had to bring my hon. Friend the Minister into the Chamber on a Friday afternoon; I appreciate the onerous duties of a Minister. However, given the distress that has been caused to London taxi drivers, I felt that it was necessary to bring the matter to the attention of the House.
I begin by referring to a report from the Department of Transport working party on the safety of users of taxis and minicabs in London, which was published in July 1992. Paragraph 23 states:If the Government were minded to propose a two-tier system of licensing in London, we believe that it should first look hard at the provincial system and any difficulties being experienced there.That is the crux of the matter. When we consider what is being experienced in Birmingham and other parts of the midlands, it is clear that many problems are being caused by the 1976 legislation. It was interesting to note that Tony Cross, a trading standards officer in Birmingham, recently said that he believed tht the only real way to work in the provinces was to have a one-tier system.
There is fear that my hon. Friend the Minister will begin to introduce a two-tier system for the licensing of black and minicabs in London. That would be a slippery slope. It would give minicabs an air of respectability that they have not had previously. Everything comes down to what the driver of a licensed black cab has to do. Many people do not understand that he has to put in an immense amount of effort to obtain a green or yellow badge, and in particular the green badge. He has to do the knowledge for two years. Then, once he has acquired his vehicle, it has to be inspected twice a year.
If the minicab is to be licensed and given that air of respectability, there will be not a level playing field, but a two-tier system, and slowly but surely we shall see the decline of the black cab. I shall explain how that will occur as a I develop my argument.
My second point, which is of paramount importance, is that one of the major problems in London, as elsewhere, is illegal touting by minicab drivers. Although that is illegal, there are only five enforcement officers in London, so touting continues unabated and unchecked. If the minicab driver is given a licence, and the air of respectability that goes with that, people will be even more confused.
1415 Currently, the police appear unable to stop that plying for hire; nor can they stop the ranking that occurs, for example, outside clubs and theatres. There is continuous touting at large railway stations, especially at weekends. The problem was recently highlighted when the police decided to purge Victoria station, which resulted in a great number of convictions. However, usually there is not sufficient enforcement to prevent that practice.
If we go down the slippery slope of a two-tier licensing system, London will experience the problems currently being experienced in areas such as Birmingham, where there are taxi wars and violent disputes not only between minicab drivers and black-cab drivers, but among the various members of the minicab trade. That will happen in London, but at 100 times the level in the provinces. The 1976 Act has failed for a number of reasons. We need to create a system that will resolve the problems once and for all.
The black cab has been part of London's heritage since the days of the hansom cab. It has successfully competed throughout the century. It is part of the London scene and part of the heritage of this great city. Like the Tower of London, Buckingham palace and Westminster abbey, the black cab is part of the London scene and a great tourist attraction. It is also part of the integrated London transport system. What incentive will there he for black-cab drivers to continue buying a black cab and to do the knowledge? A purpose-built cab costs £24,000. One can easily buy an ordinary new car to use as a minicab for £8,000, or a second-hand vehicle for as little as £3,000 or £4,000. If there is no future for the black cab, that will be a sad day for London and for a trade which has given great service to the capital over many decades.
Another problem results from the evolution of the radio cab, which allows taxis to be booked by telephone—particularly for company contract work. That business might start to die because there would not be fair competition. Black cab fares are set by the Government, but minicabs charge whatever they like. One could soon see the demise of the contract sector, with all the consequences that would follow. If drivers were compelled to move away from radio-circuit work and had to ply for hire on the streets, that would add to the likelihood of cab wars of the kind seen in Birmingham and elsewhere.
The black cab also contributes significantly to helping the disabled, with their ability to accommodate wheelchairs. That facility is not generally available in minicabs. The demise of the black cab would bring problems for the disabled. It has long been Government policy to ensure that the disabled have an opportunity to use black cabs and that every black cab will be able to accommodate wheelcharis by the year 2000.
The provision of that facility has increased the price of the black cab, quite apart from the original cost of developing it. Sir Peter Baldwin of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and Ann Fry have done immense work to help the disabled and are very much against the likely consequences of any diminution in the black cab. Dial-a-Ride and Taxicard users are opposed to a two-tier system.
One must consider also the disastrous effect on black-cab production. It is a British-produced vehicle. Given the erosion of our industrial base over the years, it would be sad to see yet another part of it lost. The LTI and Metrocab have worked unceasingly to ensure more success for the black cab. In the past two years, LTI production 1416 has fallen 50 per cent. My hon. Friend the Minister may argue that some of that was caused by the recession, but from speaking to black-cab drivers over the past few months, I know that much of it is the result of uncertainty about the future of the trade.
Drivers are not buying new black cabs because of that uncertainty. Half the work force at LTI have been made redundant over the past year and if black-cab production stopped altogether, the rest of the work force would be made redundant—as would large numbers of workers in the black-cab spare parts and service industries.
I appreciate that the Minister faces a great dilemma. I appreciate also the work of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to improve ladies' safety. The black-cab trade believes that ladies who travel with them must be properly protected. Therefore, it would be disastrous if the black cab trade, as we know it, in London were to come to an end.
Diana Lamplugh and others have rightly pointed out to me that we must also consider the safety of drivers, whether they be minicab drivers or black-cab drivers. Many black-cab drivers have been shot, knifed or viciously attacked. We must, therefore, take account of their safety, too. The black cab provides safety for the driver. If one talks to black-cab drivers, one finds that the panel between driver and passenger is of paramount importance to them.
I urge the Minister to set up a commission to inquire into the problems faced by the black-cab trade and the minicab trade in London. If he did that, we could address immediately the issues relating to ladies' safety, as well as all the other issues. For far too long, we have tampered and tinkered with the problem.
In 1990, I argued during our proceedings on the London Local Government Bill that the black cab should be saved. The report of a working party on the safety of users of taxis and minicabs in London came to no firm conclusion. If the Minister sets up a commission, it should be given clear terms of reference and asked to consider how these problems should be dealt with.
I hope that the Minister will not put the cart before the horse by announcing that he intends to start a two-tier system. I hope that he will announce a full investigation which will satisfy the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and result in taxi drivers and the people of London feeling safe. If he does that, we shall preserve one of our finest trades—a trade which, for many generations, has provided a great service to Londoners.
§ The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr, Bendall) on his customary assiduity in prosecuting the interests of the licensed trade. I welcome to the debate my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) and for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), all of whom I know take a close interest in these matters. I see on the Opposition Benches my hon. Friend—for such he is—the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who is my shadow on transport matters, as well as the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd).
In 1991, my predecessor, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), set up a working party, whose terms of reference wereto make recommendations on the framework needed to ensure that users of taxis and minicabs can travel in reasonable safety and security.1417 Last July, I received the working party's report. It has been widely circulated and was duly deposited in the Library. Following on from it, I have considered carefully, with the assistance of many interested parties who have spoken or written to me, whether any changes to the structure of the London taxi and minicab trades should be made.
I had intended to make an announcement by the end of last year. For the record, I should say that, in an attempt to do full justice to the complex issues involved, my deliberations, and the work of my officials, have taken me beyond that original time scale. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will agree that it is important that the solution is the right one and not a superficial answer simply for the sake of speed. I hope that I shall be in a position to make an announcement definitively by the middle of this year. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, having said that, I am not prepared to be drawn at this stage on speculation about my plans, whether in the Evening Standard, the taxi press or anywhere else.
In the meantime, it might be helpful if I set out the current position and described the principal factors that my review has addressed, involving potential solutions that have been put to me. Before I do that, I shall take this opportunity—as we are debating taxis—to make an important point on fares and fees. Taxi fares in London are strictly controlled by the Secretary of State for Transport. They are reviewed annually on the basis of an agreed formula which is in two parts: an average earnings index and a range of costs associated with operating a cab—classically, licence fees, spare parts, fuel and so on. Today, I can announce that all London taxi fares will rise by 20p for each journey from 24 April. That is an average increase of just over 4 per cent. and takes account of the increase in fuel duty in the Budget.
As I said, one element of the fares formula relates to fees paid to the Public Carriage Office for taxi and driver licensing. An increase from £81 to £87 in the fee for a London taxi driver's licence will take effect from 24 April and has, accordingly, been incorporated in the fares increase. Of course, a London taxi driver's licence lasts for three years. There is to be no immediate increase in the fees for licensing taxis.
My hon. Friend will know that the working party to which I referred recommended that regulation should be introduced to cover so-called minicab operations in London, but the diverse nature of the interests represented on the working party meant that it could not agree on what form the controls should take. The taxi trade in London, which is fairly well known for its strength of feeling on most issues, understandably had ideas about the future structure of the trade. Having spoken to many of its representatives, it is clear that they rightly feel a great sense of pride in their trade.
The debate to which my hon. Friend referred was—if my memory serves me—the last time that we debated the licensed trade. In that debate, I joined him in expressing appreciation for the great worth of the licensed trade to our city. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that it is part of the attraction which London offers to tourists from around the world who, almost uniquely in London, can approach a taxi in the secure knowledge that they will be taken directly to the place that they wish to go—regardless of whether they 1418 have any idea of where it is—that they will be charged a fair fare and that they will be dealt with courteously and with respect. That is a unique advantage and one which I never fail to mention when I get the opportunity, as do hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have made it clear time and again that I have no intention of harming that London taxi trade when I address the problem identified by the working party.
The London Taxi Board has been energetic in promoting the concept of a one-tier licensing system, not least to right hon. and hon. Members of the House. Such a system would require both taxis and minicabs to be subject, essentially, to the same conditions of licensing. The argument is that that would give all users the same protection. After all, taxis and minicabs offer similar services with the widespread use of radio making it sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two.
Those who advocate a single-tier system refer to the safety aspects of taxis as opposed to minicabs. As I said earlier, taxi drivers are subject to stringent checks of their criminal background and medical fitness. They know the geography of London and their vehicles are comfortable and safe. One of the most important factors in favour of the black cab is its capacity to carry a disabled passenger in a wheelchair. Since 1 February 1989, all new taxis licensed to work in London have had a requirement to be wheelchair accessible. The whole fleet will conform to that specification by the year 2000. That is just another way in which transport in London for the disabled sets a standard to be followed in cities all over the world.
The issue of safety in minicabs is a serious and emotive one. We have seen reports in the media of women being assaulted by bogus minicab drivers or driven to an isolated spot, robbed and abandoned. We all know that we must take that issue extremely seriously. We are also all aware and may even have had experience of the touts who stand outside mainline railway stations, theatres and clubs touting improperly for work. They deny that work to the licensed trade, which has invested a great deal of its time and money to acquire the unique right to ply for hire. I am keenly aware of the problem that that represents for the police in enforcing the law. It is worth making that point absolutely clear.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North will agree, the problem is that the touting law dates back to the days of horse-drawn carriages and makes it almost impossible for a conviction to be obtained without the corroboration of the often reluctant passenger who, after all, often simply wants to get home.
The safety problem is simply stated. Many companies that offer so-called minicab services are well managed and responsibly operated. Many minicab drivers are, of course, decent men. They have clean driving licences, they drive sensibly, they drive vehicles that have passed an MOT test, they are in perfectly good health, they have a perfectly adequate idea of where they are going and the area in which they work and they have no material criminal convictions.
However, unfortunately, while the law makes it an offence not to have a driving licence or to drive a vehicle not in a roadworthy condition, and while, arguably, a detailed topographical knowledge of London is not necessary on many journeys, the one thing that the law cannot guarantee in London, unlike in the rest of the country, is that the driver does not have a serious conviction for an offence that would disqualify him in the 1419 eyes of any sensible person from being allowed to take a single, vulnerable person in his car. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust has frequently drawn attention to that and I commend it for its assiduity in so doing. I recall a speech made by Baroness Hollis of Heigham, who speaks for the Opposition in another place. She accurately and movingly described the situation that a vulnerable person may face in the back of such a vehicle.
The availability of taxis and minicabs in London is another important factor in the wider debate. We might have the best taxi service in the world, but it is not always easy to get a taxi. Hon. Members can go outside to a particularly attractive spot at the Members' Entrance where we can attract a taxi at most times of the day and night. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North and I represent adjacent and similar constituencies. In those parts of London, as, indeed, in many suburban areas, taxis are in short supply or in practice do not exist at all. It is in serving suburban passengers that the informal so-called minicab arrangement has come into its own. Offices outside railway and tube stations and the freephone services that I see occasionally at supermarkets are becoming an all-too-familiar sight.
Various options have been put to me to deal with the many issues that have been raised. As I said, many people in the taxi trade would bring minicabs up to the same standard as taxis. That would include introducing an abridged version of the knowledge, criminal record and medical checks for drivers and regular MOT checks for vehicles. The same system of fares regulation would apply. That would, arguably, give all users the same degree of safety.
However, can it be argued that all those stringent requirements are always necessary for many of the journeys that the minicab industry currently undertakes? I remind the House, and I know that there will be common agreement on this, that my most important responsibility is not to any individual interest group. It is not even ultimately to the licensed trade, which we all admire. My responsibility must ultimately be to the citizen as a consumer of services. I am not sure that consumers would 1420 necessarily thank me for denying them the opportunity of the cheaper travel in perfectly acceptable conditions which is currently on offer in many places.
Another option, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North mentioned, is a two-tier system with separate licensing for minicabs which broadly reflects the system outside London. Like my hon. Friend, I have reservations about how that would work in the capital, given the stringency of the controls that are applied to licensed taxis. There would be a danger that two-tier licensing would pose a significant threat to the viability of the present licensed trade and would thus damage the very part of the taxi business that is agreed not to be the cause of the problem.
The answer must be to endeavour to put the interests of the public, especially those of vulnerable passengers, at the centre of our attention in a way that does not impact adversely on the licensed trade, which, by virtue of the time and effort that it has devoted to obtaining its unique right to apply for hire, has shown a sense of responsibility and an awareness of the importance of its task which is to be much admired.
I have not the slightest doubt of the inevitable unpopularity that will accompany whatever announcement I make. Before the hon. Member for Newham, North-West leaves, he would do well to contemplate that, in the unlikely event of his transferring to this side of the Chamber, making unpopular announcements is likely to be a feature of this job for many years to come. But I have no doubt that, in the circumstances, he would discharge it with great distinction and good humour, as he always does.
I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North and to hon. Members who represent London constituencies that I will do my level best to incorporate the principles that I have outlined to ensure that the standards of the service in London are maintained.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Three o'clock.