HC Deb 23 January 1998 vol 304 cc1255-309

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

When the results of the general election became clear on the night of 1 May, I thought that my opportunities to promote transport legislation in the House had temporarily come to an end; but, when I came fourth in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I had an opportunity to return to some unfinished business at my former Department, and to promote this Bill to license London minicabs.

My Bill corrects a long-standing and indefensible anomaly whereby minicabs throughout the rest of the country are licensed, but minicabs in London are not. As a result, those who use minicabs in the capital do not have the protection and security to which I believe they are entitled. My Bill extends that protection and security to them.

I shall present the detailed case for the Bill shortly. First, let me say that I have been in the House long enough to know the hazards of trying to enact legislation by means of a private Member's Bill. More than 20 years ago, when my party was last in opposition, I introduced a Bill compelling motor manufacturers to include delivery costs in the advertised price of a motor car, as it was impossible to buy one without paying those costs. Although eminently sensible, my Bill landed on a legislative snake as it approached the top right-hand corner of the board.

I am also conscious of the fate of earlier legislation similar to mine which was passed by the other place, but foundered here. It is always possible that, as this Bill tries to cross the legislative bridge, a parliamentary troll will appear from underneath and gobble it up; but I think there are good reasons for believing that, on this occasion, a long-overdue piece of legislation will reach the green grass on the other side.

First, there is a political consensus behind the Bill. The last Government were committed to introducing it, and it was in the present Government's election manifesto. Its sponsors come from all three of London's political parties, and include some particularly distinguished parliamentarians. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) is also present; I especially welcome his support. He is a former cab driver, and his new career as a Labour Back Bencher has probably deprived him of the opportunities that he used to enjoy of giving us the benefit of his views on current affairs.

I am also pleased to see the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham), who probably represents more taxi drivers than any other hon. Member, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who probably represents more users than anyone else. No hon. Member has contacted me expressing opposition to the principle of the Bill; on the contrary, I have been struck by the depth and breadth of support for it.

Secondly, there is widespread support for the Bill outside the House. Last July, the Department consulted a range of representative bodies, all of which were supportive: for example, Age Concern, the Greater London Forum for the Elderly, the National Council of Women, the British Tourist Authority, RADAR—the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—and the Greater London Association for Disabled People all responded positively. London First and the London tourist board have also contacted me conveying support.

I am especially grateful to the Consumers Association for its long-term work on the subject, and to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which organised a successful conference on it last week at Stringfellows—introducing me, and a number of other colleagues, to that establishment for the very first time.

Thirdly, as well as being supported by consumer interests, the Bill is supported by producer interests: the main trade association representing London's private hire cars—the London Private Hire Car Association—and the London Taxi Board, representing the bulk of London's black cabs. The Transport and General Workers Union also supports the principle of licensing minicabs. The London Private Hire Car Association, which represents the respectable end of the minicab industry, has an obvious interest in cleaning it up and in improving public confidence in minicabs. I welcome the work of Steve Wright in campaigning for the Bill.

The owners of London's black cabs have traditionally been cautious about giving their competitors the legitimacy of licensing. I particularly welcome recent statements by leaders of the black cab trade in support of the Bill. I shall return to that. Finally, the Bill is supported by interested statutory bodies. They are the Metropolitan police, the Council of Her Majesty's Stipendiary Magistrates, London local authorities and the Public Carriage Office.

Any surprise about the Bill should relate not to its introduction but to the fact that it has taken so long to get here. In 1976, legislation enabling all local authorities in England and Wales to license minicabs was introduced. London was left out because it had a different regime. London taxis are licensed by the Public Carriage Office, whereas outside London they are licensed by local authorities. Bringing minicabs within the legislation's remit required a different approach in London.

In 1989, Westminster city council proposed that the then current London Local Authorities Bill should empower London boroughs to license minicabs, but pressure from the taxi trade dissuaded the council. The Select Committee on Transport investigated the subject in 1994, and recommended that London's private hire vehicles should be regulated. The Government accepted that principle.

Efforts to bring London into line foundered for a number of reasons. Pressure on Government time often squeezed Bills out. The Bill was not in the Queen's Speech, nor was it in the previous one. Private Members' Bills hit the anxieties of the black cab trade which was concerned about giving credibility to the minicab by licensing it.

When I say that I have had friendly and constructive discussions with the black cab trade, diplomats might assume that that was code for an argument, but nothing could be further from the case. During the past six months, I have had many meetings with representatives of London's taxicabs, most of whom seemed to be called Geoff. There was Geoffrey Riesel, Geoffrey Trotter and Geoff Kaley. I pay tribute to them for the way in which they approached the discussions leading up to the Bill, and I thank them for their support for the Bill's principle and for the way in which they have expressed the interests and anxieties of their members. I look forward to further discussions with them as the Bill proceeds. It is a pleasure to be able to listen to London's taxi drivers without having to pay them at the same time.

I pay tribute to officials at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for their enormous help and advice during the preparation of the Bill. The Minister has also been supportive, and I thank her for that. Those are the interests that support the Bill. Why do they support it? First, there is a need to reduce over-dependence on the private motor car in London, and to enhance confidence in and the use of public transport.

Unlike other forms of public transport, black cabs and minicabs have the unique advantage of taking the passenger from door to door. However, unlike any other element of public transport, minicabs are unlicensed. Taxis have been licensed in London since 1654, but minicabs, of which there are perhaps 80,000 compared with 19,000 taxis, are not. A man can come out of prison in the morning after serving a sentence for rape, and be a minicab driver in London in the afternoon.

The minicab is unregulated, and there are no checks on the medical, driving or criminal records of the drivers. There are no restrictions on the suitability of the vehicles, and no requirement on drivers for any knowledge of the city's geography. As part of a broader strategy of promoting public transport and enhancing confidence in its safety and integrity, we need to close the final loophole by licensing London's minicabs, which are the remaining component of public transport. A Consumers Association survey in August showed that 84 per cent. of people who were interviewed in London had used either taxis or minicabs, and that 82 per cent. thought that both should be licensed. Some 54 per cent. of Londoners use minicabs.

Secondly, we are debating not a theoretical risk but a practical one. The vast majority of London's minicabs are responsibly run and provide a good service with reliable drivers. An irresponsible minority are not.

At the Suzy Lamplugh Trust conference last week, we listened to the experience of a girl who had thought she was entering a licensed minicab. She was not, and she was nearly raped. No one should have to go through what she went through. In another case, a woman got into a minicab outside Putney station on a Friday night. The car had all the accessories that one associates with a minicab, such as a two-way radio. After the vehicle moved off, the driver put one hand on the steering wheel while traveling at 70 mph and the other on the woman's thigh and asked for sexual favours. She jumped out when the car pulled over.

Detective Superintendent Bill Grahamslaw told the Suzy Lamplugh Trust conference that last month there were six reported attacks in minicabs, and that is probably the tip of the iceberg. The trust commissioned research on the subject, which showed that 246 out of 1,000 people who were interviewed in the capital had been subjected to incidents such as assault or dangerous driving during a journey in the capital by minicab or taxi. The vast majority of the assaults were in minicabs. The Bill will ensure that those who have been convicted of serious offences do not become minicab drivers.

Thirdly, the Bill will bring wider benefits. The unlicensed cab is not just dangerous: it may not be paying its way through the road fund, insurance or income tax. Some drivers may be here illegally, or may be claiming the dole while working. The Bill will bring them within the warm embrace of the Inland Revenue and the Contributions Agency.

That is the case for the Bill. The case against it used to come from the owners of black cabs, but that is no longer true. I should like to speak about the anxieties of those who are in the black cab trade. The Bill is about minicabs, and does not seek to reform the hackney cab legislation. However, I hope that the Minister's mind is not closed to reform or to further legislation on black cabs if that is necessary.

The testing of "the knowledge" is antiquated, and should be modernised to take advantage of modern technology. There is no reason for it taking two to three years to take the test and get the badge. That compares with nine to 18 months in 1972. I understand that there is now the same number of oral test examiners in the Public Carriage Office as there was in 1972, although the number of people doing the knowledge has doubled. That queue is a barrier to entry to the taxi trade, which needs more drivers.

I am pleased to hear that the Public Carriage Office is working on improvements to the present procedure with a view to streamlining it. It is recruiting more examiners, and, as a result, the intervals between tests are reducing. In the medium term, I hope that it will look to computer-based examination systems, and, in consultation with the black cab trade, will make an impact on the time that is taken to test the knowledge.

Licensing minicabs may have an impact on the other section of the private hire market—black cabs. In the longer term, there may be a more unified industry, with taxi firms also running minicabs, a system of multiple qualifications, or, eventually, a single qualification. Nothing in the Bill prevents reform, but I hope that the advocates of more ambitious legislation will recognise that the Bill's prime purpose is to license minicabs and not to re-regulate taxis. I have listened to the black cab trade, and I am prepared to continue listening.

I shall now turn to the Bill's details. In the main, it follows existing legislation covering minicabs outside London, and to that extent it should cause little difficulty for the House. I shall highlight the main differences as we proceed. The principal one is a reference in the Bill to minicab drivers having appropriate topographical knowledge. Clause 1 sets out the key definitions of such items as a private hire vehicle, an operator and a booking, and in particular the definition of when a vehicle is being used—on duty, as a non-lawyer might put it.

Clauses 2 to 5 deal with operator licensing. Operators receive bookings for private hire vehicles from the public by telephone or by a direct visit to the operating centre, and arrange for the bookings to be fulfilled by drivers and vehicles. The operator must be a fit and proper person, and the Bill introduces for the first time the concept of an operating centre—the place where the booking is taken. That means that there must be a place rather than a mobile phone number, so that one can check on the operator, his premises and his records. Clause 4 makes it clear that bookings must go through the operating centre, and that the operator must use licensed drivers.

Clause 5 ensures that, if the operator sub-contracts the booking to another operator, the customer is still protected. That provision is not in the existing local government legislation. Clauses 6 to 11 deal with private hire vehicles and the responsibilities of their owners. The vehicles must be licensed, and, as outside London, there are no restrictions on the number that can be licensed. The vehicle must not look like a taxi, it must be safe and comfortable, it may be tested up to three times a year, and it will be subject to spot checks. It must be identifiable so that a passenger knows that he is getting into a licensed vehicle.

At the moment in London, it is illegal to display any mark to say that the vehicle is a minicab. Outside London, vehicles have an appropriate licence plate or roof sign so that someone knows that he is getting into a licensed vehicle. The current system in London promotes the practice of getting into an unmarked car. If the vehicle has a meter, it must be of a certain standard. That is not a new requirement; it replicates what happens outside London.

Clause 12 requires the driver of a PHV to be licensed.

Clause 13 deals with the procedure for getting a London PHV driver's licence. It addresses the key issue of topographical knowledge for minicab drivers. The existing legislation for minicabs outside London contains no equivalent to subsection (3). I have included it in my Bill following the discussions that I have had with the black cab trade.

I referred a moment ago to the trade's anxieties about the legislation; it was explained to me that a requirement for minicab drivers to have an appropriate level of knowledge would do much to allay concern. I believe that such a requirement makes sense anyway—indeed, the outcome of the Department's consultation exercise showed a clear consensus that minicab drivers should have to prove some degree of topographical knowledge. I have therefore included in my Bill a clear provision enabling the Secretary of State to satisfy himself that would-be minicab drivers possess an appropriate level of knowledge of London and general topographical skills. If the wording is capable of improvement, I hope that there will be an opportunity to make the improvements during the Bill's later stages.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

It is a pleasure to be flagged down by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I fully support the Bill and his efforts. Does he have an open mind about whether the regulating body for the topographical test for minicab drivers should remain the Public Carriage Office, or whether those powers should be transferred to the Greater London authority, if one is set up, or to local authorities? I make that point because minicab drivers often need much more detailed local knowledge of estates in boroughs such as mine or the right hon. Gentleman's, as well as some limited general knowledge.

Sir George Young

I have a fairly closed mind on that subject. I believe that the regulatory body should be the Public Carriage Office.

A licensed driver must be 21 and must have had a driver's licence for three years—both are higher requirements for London than for outside—and he will be subject to a criminal record check.

Clause 14 requires the driver to wear a badge.

Clauses 15 to 29 contain general provisions in respect of licences granted under the Bill and provide for fees to be charged for the licences. They allow the Secretary of State to delegate his functions under the legislation. I hope that the Minister will confirm that she plans to take such action and to ask the PCO to carry out the functions—the clear preference of those who were consulted. The PCO is happy to do so if invited.

Clause 30 and 31 restrict the way in which minicabs can be advertised, to avoid them plying for hire or giving the impression that they are taxis. Those provisions are unique to London.

The remaining clauses and schedules are miscellaneous and supplementary provisions. Schedule 1 contains provision to use private hire vehicles as well as taxis to replace a train service. That provision will be introduced in London only if it is introduced elsewhere, and the relevant regulations are currently before the House.

The Bill is broadly drafted on purpose, because it has to be flexible enough to stand the test of time, to cope with the evolution of policy, public attitudes and technology. I am happy to leave the detailed implementation to the Secretary of State and the PCO, to which he intends to delegate the regulatory function. But I want to reassure the House that it is the intention of the PCO and the Department to require all would-be minicab drivers to take a topographical knowledge test, the details of which would be determined after consultation. The Bill is clear but flexible, and the inclusion of clause 13(3) represents a significant step forward in minicab legislation.

There is no point in legislating without enforcement. To some extent, the Bill will be self-enforcing: in future, minicab drivers and operators will be cautious about operating illegally, because, for the first time, they will have licences to lose. They will lose them if they ply for hire illegally or use vehicles that are in poor condition. Law-abiding members of the minicab trade will not hesitate to tell the authorities about others who act illegally and provide unfair competition. Not only will resources come from the proposed licence fee, but good value can be secured by learning from the best practices operated outside London and enforcing them in London.

The Metropolitan police will, of course, be maintaining their dedicated team, the cab enforcement section, which comprises four officers whose duty is not only to monitor licensed taxi drivers but to enforce wider laws to prevent action such as the illegal plying for hire by minicabs. It is the duty of all policemen to enforce the law, including this one, and the PCO will take steps to ensure that all officers are properly informed about the provisions of the Bill, should it reach the statute book. I also understand that the Metropolitan police are considering the possibility of increasing the size of the cab enforcement section for both taxis and minicabs, drawing on licence fee income.

The House will expect something more, and I am glad to say that the Metropolitan police intend to set up a new, dedicated minicab enforcement team if the Bill hits the statute book. The precise numbers are still to be decided, as these are early days, but I understand that the PCO is looking at a figure of about 20 extra civilian staff to staff the unit. The licence fee paid by the minicab trade will finance that team, whose responsibility will be to enforce the Bill, armed with the powers it provides—such as spot checks on licences, on records and on cars. In addition to spot checks, there will be a range of routine checks. Enforcement will not be the poor relation of the Bill.

I hope that I have said enough to persuade the House to give the Bill a Second Reading and send it on its way.

9.55 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I start by warmly congratulating the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on introducing the Bill, and on the presentation that he has just made. As he said, the subject of the Bill is very much a London issue, but we can learn from the experience of other towns and cities in the United Kingdom that have made more progress on regulating minicabs in their areas than we have done in London. The right hon. Gentleman has given reasons for the lack of progress in recent years.

My position on the Bill is clear. We know that there are a large number of minicabs in London. The Bill does not seek to impose any unrealistic conditions or rules on minicab drivers. What I want to see, and I am sure the people of London want to see, are rules that a minicab driver can operate based on conditions that ensure quality of service, of the roadworthiness of the vehicles used, of passenger safety and of conditions of travel that clearly show the cost of the fare and the identification of the vehicle's driver.

The London Taxi Board is required to follow high standards. Its members accept that, and keep to those standards. That means that all passengers who use London's black cabs are certain about the safety and security standards of the driver and his vehicle. We know that, no matter where we hail a black cab in London, we are certain to receive that standard of service from its driver. I want the same standards to be followed by minicab drivers and those who run the companies throughout the London area.

Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman has proposed in the Bill is unrealistic or imposes harsh conditions on those who drive minicabs or run minicab businesses. The right hon. Gentleman has outlined the all-party support for his Bill, and I hope that, once it goes into Committee, it will quickly pass become law in this parliamentary Session.

From time to time, we all read articles in the press, certainly in the London papers, about London black taxis, the rules that their drivers have to follow and their health and personal integrity. I often pass notices—I am sure all of us do—stating, "Drivers required". One wonders what sort of checks owners and managers will run on the health and integrity of those they employ. What sort of objection could there be to the requirements that will be implemented under the Bill if it becomes law, as I hope it will?

Another crucial point is what is called "the knowledge". Why does it take so long for black cab drivers to learn the knowledge? The right hon. Gentleman has given the House examples of ways in which the time could be reduced. However, it is crucial that those who drive black cabs in London have the knowledge.

In December, I had to attend a meeting in north London. I could not use my car, because it was being serviced. I called a minicab and told the driver where I wanted to go, and then asked him the cost. It is important that people using minicabs inquire about the cost of the journey, because otherwise there could be abuse—especially for those who do not know London and therefore do not have any idea of the probable fare.

I asked the driver to take me to Calvert road in north London. It is off Seven Sisters road. We got as far as Green lanes, which is in Haringey. The driver then stopped the minicab and said, "I'm lost, Guy. Do you know where we have to go?" I said that I was not really certain, so he should look in his "A to Z", as I was sure that we were in the right area. He said, "I don't have it with me, but don't worry, Guy, because I've got my mobile." He telephoned his office and spoke to a colleague called Pete. He said, "Pete, it's Fred here; I'm in Green lanes and I have to go to a place called Calvert road, which is off Seven Sisters road. I haven't got my 'A to Z' so can you tell me how to get there?" His mate then obviously said, "Well, you know, go along this road and you get to such and such a place," and eventually we got to Calvert road. But what a way to run a minicab service in London. That is why what the right hon. Gentleman said about the knowledge is so crucial.

If the Bill becomes law, as we all want, who will regulate its provisions? The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked that question in an intervention. I hope that the Public Carriage Office will have that responsibility, or perhaps it will be the new London strategic authority. I envisage no problem in resolving the question of who will be the responsible authority.

The Bill contains important provisions relating to the requirement that cab drivers have to wear badges, and that their cabs display a licence number. That is an important safeguard for those who do not know London well. Surely it is not asking too much to have the name and photograph of the driver prominently displayed in minicabs. In that way, passengers can verify that the person driving the cab is the same person shown in the photograph. I well understand the right hon. Gentleman's point about people who may be in prison one day and driving minicabs the next day. There must be means of identification.

There are two aspects of the Bill on which I wish to comment briefly. The first relates to clause 11. I have already told the House about the minicab that took me to north London. Before the journey began, I asked the driver how much the fare would be. It is important to ensure that there are meters in all cabs, so that, from the moment the passenger begins his journey, he can see the meter registering the exact cost of that journey. We cannot regulate the industry but then leave it to individual drivers to negotiate costs with the passengers.

I understand that the points I am making could be thought Committee points. However, it is also essential to make these comments on Second Reading. Clause 13(3) states: The Secretary of State may require applicants to show to his satisfaction (whether by taking a test or otherwise) that they possess an appropriate level of knowledge of London". The phrase "may require" is not acceptable—it should be "will require".

I accept that those are the sort of points that should be raised in Committee, and I hope to be a member of that Committee. I am sure that all hon. Members speaking in the debate today, on whichever side of the House they sit, will support the Bill and any minor changes that might be made to it in Committee.

We have the opportunity to bring into line what is without doubt a thriving business. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of minicab operators in London. The Bill will tighten up the operation of the minicab companies and drivers.

Of course, there are some excellent minicab companies in our constituencies, and they have nothing to fear from the Bill. Indeed, they should welcome it, because it will rid them of the cowboys that bring the whole of the minicab sector into disrepute. My message to those who object to the Bill is clear—they should not be running such a business. If this Bill forces those companies out of business, I would welcome it. I am sure that the Bill's sponsors would welcome it and, above all, that the people who use London minicabs would welcome it.

I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his Bill. After a number of years in the House, I see nothing contentious in it. I hope that, when it goes into Committee, it will be supported by the Government, and that it will become law this year. I reiterate my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman.

10.9 am

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), with whom I share the experience of having been a London Member for many years. I congratulate him on his eloquent speech.

I shall be brief, because I know that hon. Members will want to get on to debating the Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill, which is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). That Bill and the Bill that we are debating are both supported by Age Concern. I was reminded of the wind chill factor by the Almighty as I stood at a bus stop this morning.

I am delighted to support my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)—latterly both a London Member and a most distinguished Secretary of State for Transport, even if he is primarily thought of, on the streets of our capital, as a cyclist. He did not allude to the happy coincidence that his Bill should be debated at a time when "Roger Roger" is entertaining us so widely on our television screens.

I have a personal sense of coming full circle. I was first elected to the House in 1977, when The Times had a section on notable parliamentary answers of the week— which were about half a dozen in number. My first ever written question was to ask the Minister's Department, or possibly the Home Office, for the number of black cabs—or perhaps, in those days, hackney carriages—that were licensed by the Metropolitan police. I was gratified that the answer that I received got into the notable parliamentary answers of the week, particularly as I infer that a notable answer must also imply a notable question.

For those of us participating in this debate, there is no point in reiterating anecdotal evidence about abuses that have already been rehearsed by hon. Members. However, I will add allegations about contracts with minicab operators for journeys from hospitals and schools. In patient discharges, it is certainly alleged that patients are helped in with their baggage when they return from hospital and are then robbed when they have allowed access to their own home. In the context of schools, it is further alleged that at least one operator—I repeat that it is an allegation—has a criminal record for paedophilia.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned my constituency in the context of having more taxi customers than any other constituency. I think that it is probably fair to say that my constituency has a particular strength in black cabs, and that minicabs range more widely in the capital. However, there is one aspect of the minicab trade in my constituency to which I do wish to allude: touting for hire late at night, which has been referred to in the context of theatres.

I do not wish to give the House the impression that I range the West End nightly, like Mr. Gladstone, but I have personally observed what goes on outside night clubs in Mayfair in the middle of the night, at the request of residential constituents who complain of the amount of noise that is generated by slamming doors, and, incidentally, minicab drivers' conversations while they are waiting to tout for hire. I realise that currently no sanctions can be administered against them. Although I believe that touting is now a criminal offence, the law is difficult to enforce. If, because of the Bill, there will be greater sanctions on minicab drivers who behave in the manner that I have described, it will certainly be an improvement for my constituents.

Given my own constituency, I am delighted by the London Taxi Board's support for the Bill. Taxi service goes back over 300 years. The late Mr. Sherlock Holmes was not a constituent of any of my predecessors in the constituency, but his cry has rung down the past century: "Paddington station, cabbie, and a sovereign for you if we catch the train."

Londoners are proud that we have the best taxi service in the world—I refer to black cabs—although, as I remarked in a debate last year, that position was briefly threatened in the past decade. When the wall came down in east Berlin, the Stasi were all out of a job. They all became cab drivers. Briefly, they became the best cab drivers in the world, because all one had to do was to tell them one's name, and they automatically knew the address.

I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire that the Government are supporting the Bill. I am further pleased that a London colleague, the Minister for Transport in London, is representing the Government in this debate, not least because I was born and grew up in her constituency, and therefore first experienced a ride in a cab from that source.

I gather that both the Select Committee and the Department have taken the view that the cab trade is an integral part of transport. If that means that it is also a part of an integrated transport policy—as I infer from the logic of language it must be—so much the better.

10.15 am
Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

As you probably know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was a London taxi driver for 11 years before being elected as a Member of Parliament. In speaking to the Bill, I shall attempt not to call you governor or guy, or to speak of butterboys or mushes or even of being legalled off. I should, however, like to correct one or two pieces of terminology. The punters are called squire, guv or love; the driver is usually the driver or cabbie; and minicab drivers are called Rog.

The taxi issue has been debated many times in the House, but never before has a badge-holding London taxi driver been able to speak. Too often, we have had to stand by while others have done the talking for us. Whereas some did it eloquently, others have misrepresented our position.

Today's debate is occurring because of the wilful disregard of the law by certain elements of the minicab industry. Many have suggested that the taxi industry has always blocked legislation to license minicabs. The taxi trade has always resented the fact that it is forced to operate in an uneven market—that is true. Controlled by some of the strictest and most tightly enforced regulations, London taxi drivers have often been forced to stand by and watch while their business is swallowed up by minicabs. Minicab operators have always craved the credibility that comes from licensing, although they do not want to comply with any of the regulations that apply to the private hire industry outside London.

In the August edition of the Private Hire Monthly, Mr. Steve Wright, of the London Private Hire Car Association, said of the taxi trade: We do however have to watch our backs because historically the Taxi Industry has scuppered previous attempts to regulate by getting Parliamentary Bills talked out. The Taxi Trade will almost certainly, through their powerful lobbyists, try to introduce clauses into any potential regulation, we know they still want mandatory knowledge tests and many other unnecessary restrictions on Private Hire Operators and Drivers. Fortunately most of their proposals have been universally rejected by The Department of Transport and The Transport Select Committee. In a 1997 poll, 91 per cent. of Londoners said that private hire vehicle drivers should undergo a minimum topographical test. It is worth remembering that Welbeck Cars was the first attempt to break the regulations governing taxi licensing in London and the right to ply for hire, and that, ultimately, Welbeck cars was wound up because of debts to the Inland Revenue. On the latter point, some people might say that there has been no change.

The London taxi trade has for many years been prepared for the licensing of minicabs, but not at any price. The position taken by the London Taxi Board has clearly been supported by the people of London—undoubtedly to the frustration of the private hire association.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for the way in which he has consulted all interested parties on the Bill. I have met him to discuss it with him, as have former colleagues from the London Taxi Board. He has shown that he is willing to listen in frank discussions—the outcome of which is a Bill that is almost acceptable to all sides in the debate.

Having said that, the Bill is large. It was published only last Friday and has 40 clauses, some of which are very technical. I am informed that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire plans to get the Bill to its Committee stage today, but I understand that there is to be a Committee stage in the House of Lords during which he hopes that amendments will be tabled. In the light of that, I intend to outline in detail some of my concerns about the practical application of the Bill.

The issue has caused much controversy in the past. It is not reasonable to expect the Bill to pass through both Houses without. he problems being discussed in detail and amendments being tabled. I hope that the concerns of interested parties will be listened to. I must now offer a few words of caution to hon. Members.

The origins of the London taxi trade can be traced back to the 11th century when the term "hackney" referred to the horse and only later to the horse-drawn carriage. Those carriages were used for travelling from London to destinations such as Dover; gradually, as the metropolis grew, they were used for travelling around London itself.

One of the first people to take a dislike to those early cab drivers was Charles I. He preferred sedan chairs and passed appropriate legislation to protect them. The sedan chair is no more, and we all know what became of Charles I. I caution hon. Members lest they lose their political heads over this issue.

Even in the early days, the hackney coachmen suffered from interlopers—they were merchants and tradesmen who used vehicles for business but when not doing so made them available for hire for travelling around London. The early interlopers, or the forerunners of the minicab drivers, have been around for a very long time. It was the coachmen themselves who demanded legislation to stop the interlopers, so the position of the taxi trade has remained the same to this day. When people deal with the London taxi trade, they deal directly with the people who do the job, which is not the case in any other trade in London.

I still have close links with the taxi trade, and I am happy to be a host to some former colleagues in the House today—Mr. Geoffrey Trotter, the chair of the London Taxi Board, and Mr. Phil Warren, who has written some books of note on the licensed taxi trade. My sister is also a licensed London taxi driver, as was our grandfather, so I have close links with the industry. I am still a badge-holding London taxi driver, although I no longer ply my trade. I am also a former member of the London Taxi Board, which supports the Bill. I could speak for a day on the industry but, lest I be misinterpreted, I must make it clear that I do not intend to talk out the Bill or oppose it today.

The time has come for us to take the first step towards a properly regulated industry in London. The people of London want to be protected from the illegal activities of the private hire industry. They want a system that will incorporate the high standards exhibited by the London taxi trade. Sadly, the Bill will take us only one step in that direction, but I am prepared to support it as far as it goes.

My knowledge of the industry has led me to the conclusion that what is needed in London is a one-tier system of regulation, a system whereby every driver. every vehicle and every operator is treated in the same way. That is the only practical, enforceable and easily understood licensing system that will work in the capital city. I shall set out the case for the Bill to be seen as the first step towards a one-tier system.

Before I entered the House, I was part of a national negotiating committee for the Transport and General Workers Union. A former colleague of mine, Peter Hagger, drafted a document entitled, "A National Framework for Taxis", which I commend to anyone who has an interest in the subject.

When I talk about a one-tier system, I am not talking about implementing legislation that would overnight deny minicab drivers their employment. Grandfather rights would apply, and the proposals would take many years to come into force. There would be a phased programme to encourage minicab drivers to buy purpose-built vehicles and to ensure that they had a minimum standard of knowledge. I hope that a step towards that can be achieved through the Bill.

Since the first minicabs appeared on the streets of London, Governments of all political persuasions have consistently failed to recognise what an asset the licensed taxi industry is, not only for the travelling public, the economy of our capital or its standing as an international city, but for industry. The manufacture of purpose-built taxis is one of the few remaining British-owned vehicle manufacturing industries. Manganese Bronze owns Taxi International, which is the largest remaining British-owned vehicle manufacturer. I have always held the view that the opportunity for expansion—allowing other companies to develop purpose-built vehicles—has never been appreciated. I shall say more about purpose-built vehicles later.

There are a few facts about the private hire vehicle industry and the taxi industry of which hon. Members need to be aware. A fundamental point is that there is no difference between the jobs undertaken by the licensed taxi driver and those undertaken by the private hire vehicle driver, although many people suggest that there is. At the point of hire, when the request for the job is received, there is an immediate hiring, whether it is of a taxi or a minicab. Even if the job is booked via the radio circuit a week in advance, the job is issued to the next driver in the queue when the job needs to be done. Similarly, a hiring on the street is an immediate hiring. The drivers do the same job at the point where the service is delivered; it is the different regimes that prescribe how the hiring is done that distinguish the minicab driver from the taxi driver. An immediate hiring, whether on the street or through a radio-controlled operator, and whether in the licensed taxi industry or in the minicab industry, is exactly the same from the driver's point of view.

It is essential for public safety that drivers who are licensed to ply for hire are required to comply with the highest standards. That is where the distinction between the licensed taxi and the private hire vehicle is important. The incidents involving minicabs which cause most public concern invariably begin with an illegal hiring. That is an important point, which needs to be remembered. It is with illegal hirings that most physical and sexual assaults, or even rapes, occur. The public need to understand the risk to which they expose themselves when accepting a lift in anything other than a purpose-built licensed taxi.

There needs to be a real difference between the types of vehicle. Regulations must minimise the confusion between the two types of cab. Retaining the right to ply for hire is not simply about the historic right of the licensed taxi industry; it is essential for securing public safety. That is why it is crucial that purpose-built vehicles cannot be used in the private hire industry.

It is also important that private hire vehicles are not made to look as though they are available for hire, which would blur the distinction between the two industries and create confusion in the mind of the fare-paying public. Any form of distinguishing mark—a sign or advertisement on a vehicle—singles out a vehicle as one that can be approached on the street. In this respect, it will be difficult to strike a balance between the rights of the licensed taxi trade and the desire to enforce the Bill.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London has given her support to the London Taxi Board's code of conduct relating to the decommissioning of taxis, in an attempt to minimise the risk of purpose-built vehicles being used in the private hire industry or, more importantly, as bogus cabs to hoodwink the public. It will ensure that the fixtures that allow taxis to ply for hire are removed when vehicles are sold out of the industry.

In Birmingham, private hire vehicles are currently required to have stickers front and rear and on the side door. The stickers on the side door are a particular bone of contention as they are constantly being stolen. That method of identifying private hire vehicles is currently being reviewed as they are too easily distinguishable on the streets. A number of years ago, private hire vehicles in Birmingham had roof-top signs. However, drivers were encouraged to ply for hire by the fact that the vehicles were so easily distinguishable, and people would approach them on the street. The roof-top signs were subsequently removed and the current signage is under review because the legitimate private hire industry in Birmingham is complaining that drivers are being attacked for refusing to take people who approach them on the street. It is a problem for the taxi industry and the private hire industry.

I am concerned that clauses 30 and 31 do not go far enough to prevent advertisements from being placed on vehicles. That could recreate some of the problems that arise outside London. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 does not require licence plates to be fitted permanently on private hire vehicles outside London. Clause 10 also allows for the removal of PHV plates. Such a loophole could cause serious problems.

Enforcement officers outside London—most of my information is from Birmingham—have found that PHV drivers remove the licence plates and then ply for hire. When they are approached by an enforcement officer, they claim that they are not working, as they have removed the licence plates. They say that they are not plying for hire, but merely picking up friends. They also allow other people to use their cabs when the plates are removed. It is a difficult matter, which requires tight, enforceable regulation.

Birmingham is a large city with 9,000 PHV licence drivers. It has an enforcement budget of £200,000 and employs seven enforcement officers. However, last year there were only 50 successful convictions for illegal offences by private hire vehicle drivers or touts. Enforcement officers face a difficult task. The removal of licence plates also allows funeral directors to supplement their income by offering their limousines for hire when they are not being used for funerals. People who opportunistically take away business from the dedicated private hire operators are another difficulty in the industry. They are similar to the interlopers of the 17th century to whom I referred earlier.

A test case, Benson v. Boyce, found that only PHV licence holders can drive a private hire vehicle. Therefore, a member of a driver's family cannot drive the vehicle. Unfortunately, it also means that a mechanic cannot drive it, so that anomaly needs to be addressed. The licence plates should not be removable at any time and, once licensed, the vehicle should remain a private hire vehicle at all times. That is crucial to make enforcement as simple as possible.

The House will forgive me for taking up its time by speaking next about the purpose-built vehicle, but that is a subject on which I have a great deal of knowledge from which the debate will benefit. The most obvious benefit of the purpose-built vehicle is the fact that it is clearly identifiable. Hon. Members can walk out of the House and spot at a glance every taxi that passes them. That makes enforcement relatively easy. I appreciate that one does not always want taxis to pass one by, and that is another bone of contention. Minicabs are camouflaged as they resemble any other vehicle on the road, and that makes enforcement difficult. However, as I have pointed out, the answer is not to make minicabs easily distinguishable.

The purpose-built vehicle is specifically designed for the job. The driver is placed higher than in most other vehicles and can see above them on the road. That is an enormous benefit for the customer. Not only does it allow taxi drivers to take evasive action when traffic is snarled up, if there has been an accident or there is a hazard in the road, but it allows them to anticipate hazards that may affect other drivers who are not as well positioned on the road. That makes the purpose-built taxi a safe vehicle, designed for the specific job that it does on the streets of London.

The legendary turning circle is crucial in avoiding unnecessary delays to the punter. If I were driving down King's road in a westerly direction and someone wanted me to take them to the City, an immediate U-turn would be possible in a London taxi.

Drivers are partitioned off from their passengers, which is crucial in terms of safety. In the five years between 1988 and 1993, there were 561 recorded attacks in licensed vehicles—530 in non-purpose-built vehicles that do not have a partition between the driver and the passenger. Only 31 occurred in purpose-built taxis. There were 13 recorded deaths in non-purpose-built vehicles and only two as a result of attacks in licensed taxis. During that period, 95 per cent. of all attacks on drivers or passengers were in non-purpose-built vehicles. There is a strong case for legislation requiring purpose-built vehicles.

Women feel safer in purpose-built taxis as they are partitioned off from the driver. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned a couple of cases involving intimidation during taxi journeys.

The purpose-built vehicle has a number of special features designed for the job in hand. There is central locking on the foot brake to stop passengers running away or getting out while the vehicle is moving and the braking system is specially designed. The vehicle is also designed to take the wear and tear of the job, unlike ordinary family cars or saloon cars that are used in the private industry. That is crucial in considering comparative costs.

One argument often put against the widespread use of the purpose-built vehicle is its relative cost. The initial cost of a taxi is high, but when it is considered over its entire working life—compared with the lifespan of a car which is not built to do the job or to take the wear and tear—the purpose-built taxi is economical. It is mainly the rate at which the driver is forced to pay back the loan he takes out to buy the taxi that makes the initial costs so high. One saying among licensed taxi drivers regarding the new Fairway, which is an extremely expensive vehicle, is that, even when one has paid back £10,000, there is still a fair way to go.

Another important adaptation of the taxi is that it allows wheelchair access. As a councillor and in my negotiations on behalf of the taxi industry, I have always supported the requirement that all taxis should be wheelchair accessible. That and the fact that minicabs operate exclusively in certain areas of London is crucial. The London taxi is often referred to as being wheelchair accessible, but that is not an accurate description, particularly of the new TX1 vehicle, which was launched only a few months ago.

I have already described some of the adaptations that enable the taxi to ply its trade on the streets of London. In addition, it has undergone many adaptations to meet the needs of people with a variety of disabilities, including ramps, a step and a swivel seat, which I found the most useful adaptation for disabled people.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's speech is interesting, but it relates mainly to black cabs, with the odd mention of private taxis. We are not presenting a case for black cabs, as I call them in Glasgow—or hackney cabs as they are called in London. He must speak more to the Bill.

Mr. Efford

I am trying to set out the difficulties that the Bill will create in certain areas of London that are served exclusively by private hire vehicles. Disabled people could be disadvantaged, because we are not legislating for wheelchair accessibility in both sections of the industry. The need for universal disabled access across London seems to have been overlooked. I hope to be allowed to raise a further point on that in a while.

In my meetings with disabled people, they have recognised that the taxi is about as close as we can get to a vehicle capable of plying its trade on the streets of London and meeting their needs. We can continue to meet those needs only if the London taxi is protected from unfair competition. The requirement on all taxis to be wheelchair accessible was imposed on the industry by a previous Transport Minister without consultation. That has nearly been achieved within the time set.

The intention was that there should be adapted vehicles for disabled people throughout London. As we all know, there are large areas of London in which taxis do not operate. The Bill does not address the needs of disabled people in areas served only by minicabs. At the time, the Department of Transport said that it wanted to ensure access to adapted vehicles across London, but it has never taken steps to ensure that taxis begin to operate in those areas.

The Bill contains a provision to allow rail operators to replace rail services with minicabs when a service is interrupted or discontinued. I have difficulty with that proposal, as do many disabled lobby groups, the London Taxi Board and others. I understand that the issue is under consideration by Select Committees of both Houses. I am surprised that it is in the Bill. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has my support in its wish to ensure access to adapted taxis throughout London, but it is also prepared to sanction the widespread use of minicabs to replace public transport with no requirement for wheelchair or disabled access. I understand that all trains are to be accessible to disabled people by the end of the year. How can it be consistent for those services to be replaced by licensed private hire vehicles in London? As ever more contracts disappear from the taxi industry, we can expect the vehicles accessible to disabled people to disappear from London. A cynic might suggest that the issue of accessible vehicles was used by certain elements as a convenient stick with which to beat the back of the taxi industry.

I should like an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the mobility officers in the Department were consulted on that. There seems to be an inconsistency with previous statements.

The famous knowledge sets London taxi drivers apart from all others throughout the world. All of us in the House have a form of knowledge, but I have the knowledge. Many other cities require a topographical knowledge, but few require the extensive knowledge of the London taxi trade. Apart from giving a London taxi driver the incredible ability to decide immediately the best route for the customer, it also demonstrates enormous commitment to the trade. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire spoke about the time that it takes to pass the knowledge. I entirely agree with him. There is no reason why it should take two and a half years to pass as a London taxi driver. The only block on the numbers who can qualify is imposed by the numbers who can pass through the doors of the Public Carriage Office to call over their routes. That is a serious blockage, which could cause difficulties for the entire industry if it is not addressed.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I shall not intervene again. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a cab, but I do not have the knowledge—at least, not to his level. Does he agree that the view of his cab industry, as well as that of the minicab industry, is that the Public Carriage Office needs a great kick up the backside? It is old fashioned, out of date and inadequately resourced. In any other walk of life, it would not get the contract. If it does not do something serious and get itself organised, it should not have the job because it is not up to it.

Mr. Efford

As a badge-holding London taxi driver, perhaps I should choose my words carefully in response to that. The hon. Gentleman is right to criticise the Public Carriage Office, because there is an unnecessary blockage in passing drivers through the knowledge. The London taxi industry has a long history. The taxis and the drivers seem to have adapted, but other aspects of the industry have not adapted as fast.

There are suggestions that the knowledge could be replaced by a tracking device called the Carin, which can talk to the driver as he goes along, telling him where he needs to go, where to turn and where the destination is. It is an interesting device that might be useful to someone travelling round London in their own car without topographical knowledge, but I do not know how we could tolerate licensed taxis parked on clearways while the driver punched in numbers to find the destination. We should not listen to those who say that guidance devices make the knowledge obsolete.

The knowledge creates commitment to the industry. Becoming a professional driver in the licensed taxi industry requires an enormous commitment. The private hire industry does not require a full-blown knowledge of London. Its drivers have a small working knowledge of the area in which they operate, but they should also have a knowledge extending beyond their local area. They should know the location of major points such as stations and hospitals outside their area. The people of London expect at least a topographical knowledge of London.

The casual nature of the private hire industry contributes to the problems that we are addressing. The public have a right to expect that any person who is prepared to offer his vehicle for hire has a basic working knowledge of the area in which he plies his trade. Clause 13 suggests only that the Secretary of State may require a private hire vehicle driver to have topographical knowledge. Nine out of 10 of this country's largest cities require their cab drivers to have such knowledge and I see no reason why London should expect a lesser standard. Some 182 licensing authorities outside London require drivers to have topographical knowledge and 46,500 private hire vehicle drivers from a total of 67,000 outside London must pass topographical knowledge tests. There is no reason why London drivers should be excluded from that requirement.

If it is intended that private hire vehicles be identifiable on the road—we accept that the two different groups of drivers do the same job—the logical long-term conclusion is that we must move towards a one-tier system for the industry in London. That is my view as a licensed taxi driver who has operated across London—it is not the view of the London taxi industry. I have witnessed the abuses of the system and I understand the need for that system to be easily enforceable.

Through my involvement with the Transport and General Workers Union, I have met many union colleagues who work in the private hire industry outside London. Their concerns are often different from those of the London circuit operators to whom we tend to listen. We have heard very little from the minicab drivers in this debate.

Hon. Members should not get the impression that operators are merely innocent victims in this matter and that, if minicab drivers were under their control, all would be well with the industry. The problems associated with plying for hire are often exacerbated by the action of the operators. For instance, all radio circuits have contracts. When a driver takes a contract job, the payment is often withheld for several weeks. Hon. Members will appreciate that that causes difficulties for drivers in the private hire industry. Minicab drivers might suggest that the Bill should require operators to pay their drivers the money that they are owed for contract work within a certain period. Drivers face cash-flow difficulties every week as a result of the contract fee being paid directly to the operator and not to the driver.

In order to ensure that the weekly rent is paid, private hire vehicle operators often give minicab drivers contract work for the first part of each week until they have secured their weekly rental income. They then begin to give drivers cash work. That leads to some problems outside London because private hire vehicle drivers are forced to earn cash by plying for hire on the streets of their cities. That also causes difficulties for enforcement officers outside London, and we must be aware of that in our discussions about the details of the Bill.

Operators are also key to the working of an efficient enforcement system. If people must pass the most stringent checks when applying for their operator's licence—including criminal record checks, which the Bill does not propose—they are more likely to employ as drivers fit and proper people who maintain high standards in their vehicles.

We must also address the issue of operators and cross-border hiring. For instance, an operator who is licensed outside London may advertise and operate in London. I am not sure that the Bill precludes that activity. I have spoken to enforcement officers outside London about the Bill and they believe that the invitation to customers to contact an operator is crucial. Operators who advertise in an area should be registered and licensed in that same area. For example, a minicab operator from Dartford who advertises in London should be required to be licensed in London as well as in his local area.

We must also have named operators. The Bill refers to operating centres. Operator's names are not recorded, so they may be blamed for any problems. When enforcement officers arrive at an office and find that there are no proper records, they often hear the excuse: "We've got rid of that operator and sorted out the problem." The person who is responsible for the operating centre, not merely the owner of the minicab firm, should be registered and should undergo the same criminal record checks that are required of drivers. Therefore, the person described in clause 4 as being responsible for keeping the records should undergo criminal record checks and all checks on his business activities that are required of other individuals mentioned in the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) referred to metered fares. I oppose the introduction of metered fares to private hire vehicles as that would cloud the difference between licensed taxis and private hire vehicles. The point of private hire vehicles is that people agree the fare before they begin their journey. The operator records that fare and, if there is any argument about the fare upon the completion of the journey, the agreed fare may be checked with the operator. That is an important point. It would not be possible to agree the fare beforehand if meters were introduced to private hire vehicles.

Operators' premises should be licensed. The Bill does not refer to planning permission for minicab offices. I suggest that minicab operators should be required to obtain planning permission for their offices before they begin operating. There are many examples of operators outside London who have started their businesses without first seeking planning permission. Hon. Members will know that the planning permission enforcement procedure is extremely slow. It is often the case that, by the time planning officers enforce the rules, operators have moved to new premises and the cycle begins again. It is important to address the issue of planning permission for operators' premises.

Criminal record checks should apply to drivers and to vehicle operators and radio operators. That should be a statutory requirement and not merely a request from the Secretary of State. The Bill should state that the Secretary of State requires criminal record checks of all people involved in the private hire industry. Anything less than that is unacceptable. The people of London expect criminal record checks and topographical knowledge to be introduced, and the relevant clauses of the Bill should be amended accordingly.

Although such measures are necessary, they will not affect the bogus touts who cause most of the problems about which hon. Members are concerned. Touting is generally undertaken by individuals rather than drivers who work through an operator. The licensed taxi trade lobbied very hard for a conviction for touting to be introduced into criminal justice legislation. Unfortunately, that has not met with much success. In 1995 there were 107 convictions for touting in London, and in 1996 the total went down to 98. Touting is a serious crime taking place at stations and other termini in London. Foreign visitors are often approached by individuals at the stations and offered rides in uninsured unroadworthy vehicles—and that is their first impression of our capital city. The regulations in the Bill do not apply to those individuals.

The use of the word "taxi" conjures up a clear picture in the minds of the fare-paying public. When someone says "taxi" people think of the FX4, the purpose-built vehicle. The word "cab" is now used to describe both taxis and private hire vehicles, despite the fact that it derives from "cabriolet", the word used to describe the old horse-drawn hackney carriage.

It is vital that there be a clear distinction between a taxi and a minicab, and the naming and advertising of companies plays a vital part in maintaining the distinction. In some places outside London—in Birmingham, for example—printing the word "taxi" is allowed if a private hire vehicle operator has one taxi on his circuit. People often print the word "taxi" in large letters, and add underneath in very small letters "and private hire vehicle". We must be careful how we word the regulations in connection with the use of the word "taxi". Clearly, people use it to mean the hackney carriage. That is an important subject, which needs further discussion in Committee.

The regulations are already there to deal with the problems that we are discussing, but legislation is necessary to create a revenue stream to pay for an enforcement agency. If we wanted to deal now with all the problems that we are discussing, we would find that the necessary laws already exist.

Touting comes under section 167 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Driving without insurance is a road traffic offence under the Road Traffic Act 1988, and driving without an MOT certificate is illegal under the same section of the same Act. Plying for hire on the streets of London is a breach of the London Hackney Carriage Act 1831.

So the laws exist to deal with all the crimes that we have heard about today. The only reason that we are in the House today discussing legislation is to create a revenue stream from the industry that is causing the trouble to finance an enforcement agency to tackle the problems as they occur.

I am told that the Public Carriage Office, the enforcement department of Scotland Yard, plans to employ 20 officers for enforcement. I have already said that Birmingham has 9,000 taxis and seven enforcement officers. Yesterday I asked Yellow Pages to do a calculation for me and tell me how many private hire companies were registered to advertise in all editions. That took time, because some firms advertise in more than one edition, but in the end I was told that there were 1,303 minicab firms advertising in Yellow Pages.

Enforcement officers with experience outside London have told me that 20 officers will not be enough to enforce the licensing regime in London, where there are more than 1,000 operators and, it is estimated, between 60,000 and 100,000 minicab drivers. To eradicate illegal hiring will require intensive enforcement. So long as there is widespread use of ordinary saloon vehicles it will remain a serious problem, and enforcement will be expensive.

The Bill will deal with some elements at the more unsavoury end of the minicab industry. The sanctions for those caught breaking the rules should be severe, and those proposed in the Bill are not severe enough.

Licence renewal needs to be done annually, rather than every three years. There are examples outside London, again involving the private hire industry, of licensed drivers with 20 to 30 points on their licences. Because the PHV licence is reviewed only every three years, that fact is not picked up by the licensing authorities.

Moreover, magistrates are 1oth to take away a private hire vehicle driver's livelihood by banning him from driving. However, as somebody who drove for a living in a capital city for 11 years and did not get even one point, I would say that the fact that someone has 20 to 30 points on his licence suggests that he should not be doing the job.

I have highlighted many of the practical problems by drawing on my knowledge of what goes on outside London. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, too, mentioned his experience of the minicab industry. I agree with him that the Bill deserves to progress and to become law, but we should take the time to learn from the experience of enforcement officers outside London and amend the Bill to make it workable.

I suggest that the licence fee for a minicab operator should be £1,000 a year. We should consider that here and in Committee, rather than leaving it to the Public Carriage Office. I hardly think that to require an operator to pay a licence fee of £20 a week will force him or her out of business.

We estimate that there are at least 50,000 minicab drivers in London, and if they paid £50 each that would raise an income of £2.5 million. With more than 1,300 minicab operators, plus the £2.5 million from the taxi drivers, we shall have a significant sum to finance an extensive enforcement agency for the capital city.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I am not quite clear what the hon. Gentleman's intentions are. Does he intend the Bill to go to a Standing Committee of this House, or is he content for it to go into Committee in another place? If the former, does he understand that in that case the Bill would be unlikely to reach the statute book?

Mr. Efford

Yes; the point is well made and I accept it. I have had discussions with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and I understand that he intends the Bill to go into Committee in another place. I am satisfied with that, and I thank the House for indulging me this morning. Because I was aware that the Bill was going into Committee elsewhere I have dealt today with some of the detail, and taken advantage of the Second Reading debate to put on record some of my areas of concern before the Bill moves on. I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention.

I have spoken about purpose-built vehicles and set out what I believe could be an extensive enforcement system for London. We need to draw on experience outside London. The knowledge system is antiquated and needs to be modernised. It is an unnecessary barrier to the extension of the taxi industry into areas in which it does not now operate.

I am happy to support the Bill, so far as it goes, but I expect significant amendments to be made to the clauses that I have mentioned, to make it enforceable and workable. Anything less will not be acceptable to the people of London. They expect a licensing regime that will tackle those elements of the private hire industry that will try to obey whatever regulations the House lays down. That will require extensive enforcement. We are not talking about the people employed by the operators who are causing the worst problems in the industry, and it is those people whom we must bear in mind when dealing with the enforcement of the licensing regulations proposed by the Bill.

11.9 am

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on promoting a Bill which seeks to rectify a 22-year-old anomaly—the unlicensed minicabs in London. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) on a very, very detailed and knowledgeable speech. I will use a more direct route to make my point.

I would like one small amendment to be made to the Bill, and the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Eltham have alluded to it—it is the substitution of the words "may require" with the words "will require" in clause 13, relating to topographical knowledge. If the use of the word "may" is a legal requirement or a nicety of some sort, so be it. If it is not, we should make that change. As has been said, nine out of 10 of the largest metropolitan areas outside London require topographical training. A recent MORI poll showed that more than 90 per cent. of Londoners want that, too.

People taking minicabs should have the reassurance that the driver actually knows where he is going, and that they will be taken by the most direct route. Any distractions, such as trying to consult a map, are extremely dangerous and must be discouraged. After all, that is not acceptable in any other transport service. One does not see a bus driver with the "A to Z" in his lap, trying to find his way. I do not see why that should be acceptable for minicab drivers, either.

There are a number of reasons why I support the Bill. Many people use minicabs at present, but without necessarily choosing a particular firm. Hospitals and councils use minicabs, and very often their contract has simply gone to the firm that has quoted the lowest tender. By licensing minicabs, people will be certain that they are using a respectable firm and will be picked up and dealt with in a reliable fashion.

Licensing will give minicabs the respectability which is needed if they are to play a part in the integrated transport policy to which hon. Members have referred. They have a key role. We are talking about getting people on to public transport, but people will still need flexibility at the end of their journey to get from the station to their final destination. Black cabs and minicabs have a role to play in that respect.

It might be expected that minicab drivers would oppose the Bill. They do not—they support it. I have conducted my own opinion poll, which I admit was not very scientific. The sample was one minicab driver. I caught a cab near Carshalton station up to Carshalton Beeches, and asked the driver for his view on the Bill. I thought that he would oppose it, because I felt that his car, perhaps, was not entirely roadworthy. However, he said, "It will put the cowboys out of business, mate." He was in favour of it. Minicab drivers support the Bill, and we have heard that the London Taxi Board supports it as well.

In return for the support of the London Taxi Board, we should examine the Public Carriage Office, to which hon. Members have referred. It is ludicrous that there are only five examiners carrying out oral testing on drivers. I understand that the reason why they carry out oral testing is because of the suggestion that taxi drivers cannot actually read. That is a source of concern. There is scope for change, and computer testing will help to speed up the process. It will enable the healthy competition between minicabs and black cabs to continue.

I have promised to take a direct route to make my point, and I would like to finish by asking all hon. Members to support the Bill. I hope that it makes speedy progress through both Houses, so that we do not have to read distressing headlines such as the one in the Evening Standard on 30 December: "I thought he would rape me, kill me and dump me by the road." That sort of headline needs to become a thing of the past. I commend the Bill to the House.

11.14 am
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)

Let me join in the paean of praise, and offer my sincere congratulations to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on promoting the Bill. I do so for three reasons: first, as the representative of a suburban south London constituency with a large number of minicab operators—who have long expressed to me their desire for proper regulation of the private hire trade—and a local public who make extensive use of minicabs and naturally wish to have the assurance that they are travelling in the safest possible circumstances; secondly, as a frequent user of minicabs and black cabs; and thirdly, as a former member of the Select Committee on Transport, whose 1994 report on taxis and private hire vehicles the Bill largely implements.

As the excellent House of Commons Library research paper on the Bill states, the first moves in Parliament to secure the regulation of the private hire trade took place 30 years ago. I suspect that a Bill of this character has been gathering dust in the corridors of the Department of Transport for some time, and that it has been shelved from time to time for not entirely admirable reasons. In other words, the Bill is long overdue, and I am glad that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has bitten the bullet on this issue. I am delighted that the Government are giving their backing to the Bill, and I very much hope that it will reach the statute book at the earliest opportunity.

There are an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 minicabs—perhaps more—operating on London' s roads, making literally millions of journeys each year. They carry passengers in road conditions which may be dangerous. In some circumstances, the vehicle itself—unless properly checked—may be dangerous. The driver is in virtually direct contact with the passenger, placing the passenger in a potentially vulnerable situation.

Frankly, it is a scandal that, for so long, both the drivers and their vehicles should have been subjected to no systematic safety checks or scrutiny whatever. I can think of no other major service industry which has been the subject of such sustained administrative neglect—a neglect that the Bill rightly seeks to remedy.

The Bill is right to recognise, by implication, that at this point in time there should be a two-tier licensing system which distinguishes between taxis and minicabs, and lays down minimum standards for each. That was one of the recommendations of the Select Committee in 1994, and was based on the recognition that the black cab and minicab trades are essentially different businesses. Some 90 per cent. of London taxi work is on-street hiring. Minicab work is through telephone hiring, and where it is not, it ought to be. I shall return to this subject later in my speech.

Taxis and minicabs meet different market needs and operate largely in different locations. The vast majority of London's black cabs choose to operate within a six-mile radius of the centre of the city, and only about 2,000 of London's 22,000 black cab drivers now hold yellow badges, restricting them to the 16 suburban sections of the Metropolitan police district. It is in the inner and outer suburbs that the minicabs do their business, filling a market niche which the black cabs—to all intents and purposes—abandoned many years ago.

Of course, minicabs provide a service of less geographic reach, which usually requires considerably less topographical knowledge. That helps to justify and explain the higher fares charged by black cabs. Black cabs and minicabs provide different services and meet different market needs, so there is no reason why the regulation of minicabs—under the proper conditions—should threaten the black cab business. My strong impression is that that is the view taken by the black cab associations, and I welcome their generally constructive approach to the Bill.

The overwhelming majority of minicab operators and drivers are certainly only too eager for the regulation of their industry. They want to deliver a high-quality service, and they want the public to have confidence in the reliability and safety of the service they provide. They are desperate to get rid of the cowboys who do so much damage to their trade. The likely immediate effect of the Bill is a reduction in the number of minicabs on London's roads, but that can only work to the long-term advantage of the industry. I reiterate that it will not work to the disadvantage of the black cab trade.

The Bill proposes the introduction of regulation at three levels: operator, vehicle and driver. I do not want to dwell on the provisions for the operator or the vehicle, other than to add my support for the importance of regulating operators. After all, they must play the key role in ensuring the standards of the trade. They ought to be providing the vital quality checks on vehicles and drivers on a daily basis.

Clause 4 cites the insurance details of the vehicles as one of the records that the operator may be required to hold. In our Transport Select Committee report, we noted that one of the most worrying aspects of the unlicensed public hire vehicle trade was that passengers often did not recognise that they were not insured against accident and losses. We recommend that PHV drivers should be required to display a certificate of insurance in an easily legible form. I would not want to live or die by that precise recommendation, but I hope that it will at least become an obligation for the operator to ensure that drivers have a valid insurance policy in force at all times.

I particularly welcome the requirement in clause 10 that an identification disc or plate should be displayed. I hope that provision will be made to ensure that they are displayed as prominently as possible. It is essential for passengers to be able to tell before getting into a private hire vehicle whether it is licensed, as they can in the case of a taxi.

On the proposals for the regulation of drivers, I welcome the requirements that minicab drivers should be at least 21 years of age and should have held a full driver's licence for at least three years. We made the same recommendation in the Select Committee report. Those are the conditions required of London taxi drivers, and I see no reason why the same requirements of relative maturity and experience should not be required of minicab drivers.

The Bill is less stringent in its requirement for criminal checks on drivers. Clause 15 stipulates that the Secretary of State "may require" a criminal record check. That stands in contrast to the Government's consultation paper last year, which stated that it was essential that such checks be carried out at regular intervals. It also contrasts with the Select Committee's recommendation and with practice everywhere else in the country.

I recognise the reservations of some operators about the delays involved in the process—delays of between six and eight weeks have been cited. However, since the Public Carriage Office operates under the auspices of the Metropolitan police, that process could and should be faster. The point is that that is a precaution on which the public insist—rightly so, for all the terrifying reasons of violence against passengers highlighted in recent Evening Standard and Suzy Lamplugh Trust campaigns among others.

The simple existence of a criminal record should not exclude individuals from being minicab drivers. We ought to recognise that, for some people who have a criminal conviction, or who have even served a criminal sentence, driving may be one way to work their passage back into society. Most members of the public would not feel unduly threatened by someone who had committed, for example, a so-called paper crime, and would not feel that they should be excluded from the job of driving.

It is reasonable to expect that a person with a criminal record for violence or sexual offences should be prevented from acquiring a minicab licence. I hope that the Bill can either be amended to that effect, or, at the very least, that the Government will make it clear that they will make such a ban an absolute requirement of the minicab driver's licence.

The Bill is also permissive on the requirement for topographical knowledge as a condition of the licence. A topographical test is a reasonable requirement. I understand the counter-argument that, since the minicab fare—unlike the black cab fare—is predetermined, it does not matter how long or circuitous the journey may be. However, it does matter if the journey takes 15 or 20 minutes longer than it should because of the driver's lack of familiarity with the local street map. That is not a good service. Nor is it is a good service if the passenger has to pore through the "A to Z" on behalf of the driver, which has been my experience more than once. It is certainly not a good service when the driver ends up lost.

The threshold on the topographical knowledge should not be set so high as to become a barrier to acquiring the licence, but, as most minicab drivers carry out longitudinal journeys, to railway stations and airports, or journeys within a three-mile radius of their operating base, it seems fair that they should demonstrate a familiarity with those routes.

I have said more than once that there is nothing in the Bill to threaten the black cab trade. On the contrary, it will create—to use that hoary old phrase—a more level playing field between the black cab and the minicab trade, if only because the price of greater safety for the public will be somewhat higher costs in the private hire industry. In return for the regulation of minicabs, the black cab trade is entitled to greater reassurance that the practices of touting and plying for hire, which will remain absolutely proscribed for minicabs, will not be tolerated.

According to the House of Commons Library research service—I am grateful for the service's help in this matter, and for the statistics it provided—it is not possible to identify separate figures for the prosecution of minicab drivers for plying for hire. It is suspected that such prosecutions are fairly rare, yet illegal plying for hire is extensive outside clubs, discotheques and even theatres, as we have heard. The black cab trade has the right to expect firm action by the police against such practices.

On the distinctive offence of touting, usually in the form of soliciting for business on foot, since the inclusion of that offence in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, there were a total of 130 cautions and guilty verdicts in London in 1995 and 132 in 1996. Set against the potential scale of the offence, with thousands of minicabs on the road and millions of visitors to London each year, I wonder whether the black cab trade can be entirely happy about the vigour with which offenders are pursued.

I believe that the Bill is a major step forward for London, offering proper safeguards for both the black cab and the minicab trades in London. Above all, I believe that it offers the prospect of safer and higher-quality services for the millions of minicab users in London. I whole-heartedly commend it to the House.

11.29 am
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), who made an extremely clear and articulate speech.

The Bill is excellent, and will benefit Londoners. The Conservative party welcomes it whole-heartedly. It will for the first time regulate minicabs and minicab drivers and companies in the capital.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on his good fortune in the private Members' ballot. They say that luck is the moment when preparation meets opportunity. This is certainly his opportunity, and no one can argue that he is not well prepared, as he served with distinction as Secretary of State for Transport at the end of the previous Parliament. I am encouraged that someone with such an outstanding track record in transport policy and practice should be in the driving seat, as it were. Once the Bill is enacted—who knows?—he might even be tempted to leave his bicycle at home.

I am privileged to have been asked by my right hon. Friend to be a sponsor of the Bill, and I wish him every success. Glancing at the list of sponsors, I notice that it includes a Mr. Piers Merchant. We all know that he had a few personal problems, but at least his heart was in the right place. Perhaps the printers might rectify the matter at some point.

Conservative Members will do whatever we can to ensure the Bill's safe and early passage. The sooner it reaches the statute book, the better. London's 7 million inhabitants and the thousands upon thousands of people who visit our city should enjoy the numerous safeguards it will provide.

Many of us use minicabs. When we book a minicab journey outside London, we do so through a licensed firm. We are picked up by a licensed driver, driving a licensed vehicle. In London, none of those necessary protections exists, because, as my right hon. Friend made clear, a licensing system does not operate in the capital.

Many members of the public book cabs from their homes, and medical staff, patients and visitors use them to travel to and from hospitals. Prison staff, restaurant staff and shift workers use minicabs regularly. Night clubbers in London are especially easy prey for minicabs illegally touting for hire in the street. Visitors to the capital can and do get picked up by unscrupulous drivers, who have been known to charge them the earth for short journeys.

The majority of drivers and vehicles are safe, but a minority endanger their customers and other road users. Either their vehicles are unfit for private hire or, worse, they are ready to mug and attack unsuspecting passengers. That unsatisfactory situation must be changed.

Because London is the only city in which anyone can set up as a minicab driver, people with dangerous criminal records can walk out of prison in the morning, as my right hon. Friend said, perhaps having served time for rape or some other vicious, violent crime, and be on the street by the afternoon, touting for business as a minicab driver. Their time is fast running out.

I have heard of too many instances in which the minicab customer has had an argument, or worse, with a violent or sexually abusive driver. It is a sad fact that women are more likely to receive such treatment. Hon. Members may have read the harrowing articles in the Evening Standard, describing a whole range of ordeals that minicab users have gone through. I commend the newspaper for its excellent coverage on the issue. By publicising the sometimes dreadful events, it has been a powerful force in the campaign to promote the Bill.

Some may be surprised to learn that men, too, suffer abuse. A young doctor's experience late one Saturday night in south London is frightening to relate: with not a black cab in sight, he took a minicab that had touted for his business in the street. He got in the front passenger seat, and minutes later the driver pulled over and another man got in the back and demanded money. He pulled out a knife, forcing the doctor out of the car, having taken his house keys and cash. The car drove off. That was a terrifying experience at 4 o'clock in the morning, and one that could easily have ended in tragedy.

People run an unacceptable risk in our city every day, and Conservative Members want it brought to an early end. With the licensing system proposed by the Bill, customers will be able to feel safe in the knowledge that the firm taking their bookings is fit for business. They will know that the driver who collects them has been approved and knows where he is going, and that the car has been passed for hire. That will establish a triple guarantee for safer travel.

For those of us who are concerned about cost, the scheme has been priced at about £4 million a year, as the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) said. It will be set up so as to be largely self-financing through licence fees. Fees may rise slightly as a result, but one of the attractions of minicab travel is that fares are quite cheap in any case. It is right that those who use the service should pay for its regulation. In that way, little cost is passed on directly to the already over-burdened taxpayer.

Regulation will also mean the end of tax and benefit fraud in the trade. Some drivers claim benefit illegally. Some firms are not registered for value added tax. In my constituency, the cash-in-the-pocket cowboys are undermining and under-cutting legitimate minicab companies that meet International Standard Organisation accounting standards. That will come to an end.

The hon. Member for Eltham spoke in some detail of the black cab trade's concern and referred to the famous turning circle of the London taxi. That reminded me of the story of the fabulously wealthy billionaire, Mr. Gulbenkian, who came to London in the 1930s and got rather interested in black cabs. When someone asked him what a black cab was, he said, "It's one of those things that turn on a sixpence—whatever that may be."

As my right hon. Friend said, there are approximately 20,000 licensed black taxis in London, offering a service that is unique and of a very high standard. There are more than 2 million passenger journeys a week, and the industry makes an immensely valuable contribution to London's economy, with an annual turnover of more than £700 million.

I am sure that hon. Members who have taken taxis in other capital cities will agree that London enjoys one of the finest cab services in the world—perhaps the very finest. I pay tribute to the way in which the black cab trade has worked so constructively with my right hon. Friend. Not for one moment do I think that it will suffer as a result of the Bill. Crucially, the law will continue to allow for only black cabs to be flagged down in the street. That is fair and right.

We can reassure the black cab trade: if there is a thriving unregulated minicab trade without the legislation, surely regulation will take the cowboys out of the system and ensure that only approved drivers and vehicles are on the streets of London. There is no threat to black cabs. That is certainly good news for the people of London.

Last week, I attended an excellent seminar on the Bill, organised by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. It was addressed by my right hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). The trust is a tremendous example of how courage and great achievement can come from adversity. I pay warm tribute to the hard work and determination of its founder, Diana Lamplugh, and her husband Paul.

The trust has been behind the campaign for the regulation of London's minicab drivers for many years. I hope that its efforts will be rewarded this Session. At the seminar, it became clear that the Bill had the support of the Metropolitan police, the London tourist board, the Consumers Association and the Greater London Association for Disabled People. Moreover, representatives from both the minicab and black cab trades voiced their support for the Bill in principle.

Mr. Efford

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the representatives at the seminar all expected topographical knowledge to be included in the Bill?

Mr. Ottaway

I do not know exactly what their personal knowledge was before they came to the meeting, but they agreed that details such as topographical training could be dealt with later by the Public Carriage Office as the appointed licensing authority.

London must not be made to wait a minute longer than necessary to enjoy the same legislation that covers the rest of the country. Each of us has a right to expect the protection and weight of the law to apply to London's minicab trade. The Labour party supported the changes in opposition, and I am pleased that the Minister will confirm today that the Bill will enjoy from the Government the same unqualified support as it has from the Conservative party.

It would be unfair to the black cab trade, with its excellent regulated service, for the present unsatisfactory arrangements to continue in London. It would be unfair to the legitimate minicab trade outside London, and, above all, it would be grossly unfair to Londoners and those visiting our vibrant capital city, if the Bill did not succeed. We support it.

11.40 am
Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I am delighted to participate in the debate today, especially—as the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) pointed out—because it affects women in the capital. I am the first woman to participate in the debate, and I join other hon. Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on using his opportunity to introduce this legislation.

If I were to leave the Chamber now and walk to the Members' Entrance, I would probably walk straight into a black cab. If I walked a little further, out of the Members' Gates and down Victoria street, I could probably hail a black cab within a few seconds. If I went a little further, beyond Victoria, I would probably be passed by 30 or 40 black cabs. If I got into any of those black cabs, I would be certain of my safety.

The London taxi has existed in some form for many years, and has been subject to regulation since the time of Oliver Cromwell. The regulatory system has been built up over time, and it ensures that, by and large, black taxis are constantly checked for roadworthiness and to ensure that the drivers have a criminal record check, a medical, a driving test, a financial test and, lastly, the knowledge.

Many people are familiar with some or all of those requirements. We are aware that prices are regulated and metered. The enduring sight of the London taxi is a testament to the quality of the service. Indeed, London's black cab fleet is a tourist attraction, and many a visitor has snapped the timeless design of the Fairway cab.

However, while black cabs are regulated and we know what we get, the same cannot be said for the other form of private hire cars in London—minicabs. Most people are unaware that there is any difference in regulation between the two. In a survey last September in Which? magazine, 51 per cent. of Londoners were found to have no idea that minicabs were not regulated.

Most people probably did not know that because London is the exception rather than the rule. It lags behind every other metropolitan district, city and town. Outside London, all minicabs are regulated. Why should London, our capital and a metropolitan area covering some 7 million people, fail to be covered by such obvious legislation? We should grasp the opportunity presented by the Bill to place regulation on the statute book. We cannot allow London's minicabs to slip through the regulatory net again.

When Londoners are questioned about the most important problems facing London, time and again they put transport at the top of their agenda. Minicabs are part of that transport infrastructure, and, with 60,000 to 80,000 operating in and around London, they contribute significantly. In fact, there are twice as many minicabs as black cabs. Outside central London—for example, in my constituency, where there are fewer black cabs—the minicab is often the only form of private hire car available. Another Consumers Association survey showed that more than half of Londoners questioned said that they would use a minicab, but only a third said that they would use a black cab.

Many people rely on minicabs. For those without a car, or when public transport is inadequate, they are the only way to get from A to B quickly. For women, they are essential to ensure that we can get home safely at night. Elderly people often use minicabs when they go shopping. As minicabs are often cheaper than black cabs, they can be for many the only viable option for a journey.

While all users hope that their cab is safe, there are no guarantees. It is a lottery. Minicab drivers have no safety checks. The roadworthiness of cars is not checked. Drivers may have a criminal record, and even, as other hon. Members have pointed out, be convicted rapists. They do not need identification. Each time a woman goes home late at night in a cab, she crosses her fingers and hopes that she will get home safely. Sadly, some do not.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and its work, and I join them in congratulating the trust on its campaign. I was shocked, as I am sure other hon. Members were, to find that the trust's survey of 1,000 people who used private hire firms found that a fifth had been subjected to dangerous driving or an assault in a minicab.

In the same survey, 14 per cent. knew someone who had been physically or sexually abused when travelling in a minicab. The Evening Standard reported recently that, in the past 12 months, there have been 68 sex attacks on women by minicab drivers, and the Metropolitan police have estimated that more than one rape a week occurred in London minicabs in 1997. Those are violent crimes, and very real dangers.

Many London Members attending the debate today may have had constituents come to them about attacks or assaults. The issue is close to my heart, and I wish to relate an incident that happened to a former member of my parliamentary staff. She was trying to get home at about 1 o'clock in the morning. She was outside a major railway station and tried to hail a black cab, but nobody stopped. Finally, a minicab pulled up. That was illegal—because minicabs are not allowed to ply for trade—but it was late and a cold night, so she got in the cab. She thought that she was safe, because the driver had a two-way radio system and a large aerial on the boot of his car. However, instead of taking her home, the driver started to assault her. Fortunately, my former member of staff is strong and level-headed and, after a struggle in which she was bruised, she managed to escape from the cab. She was then picked up by a black cab driver and taken home for free, but the experience, of course, left her shocked and distraught.

As a mother of three teenage and post-teenage daughters, I worry, like every other parent, about girls' safety when they go out in the evening. I do not let my girls come home except by minicab, and, because of my fear of minicabs, we rely on the one and only Lady Cabs. That is not good enough in a modern capital city. We need to guarantee the safety of everyone who uses minicabs—residents or tourists, men or women. We need to know that, when a minicab arrives, the vehicle is safe and the driver is vetted and medically fit. At present, it is illegal for an employer to carry out a full criminal check on potential drivers.

No professionally run minicab organisation should fear this legislation. They should welcome it, because it will remove from the business the unscrupulous, the illegal and the dangerous—those drivers who give the whole trade a bad name. It makes sense that drivers should face a criminal check and be proficient in driving. If minicabbing is somebody's job, he or she must be competent behind the wheel. It also makes sense that cars should be roadworthy for carrying passengers.

Drivers should also have some local knowledge of the area. Although the destination is agreed in advance, they should be able to read a map. Given that pollution and congestion are increasing, drivers should also be using the quickest and simplest route.

It makes sense for drivers to know where they are going when they pick up their passengers. We must all have been in minicabs whose drivers have not had a clue where they were going. My best example is this: when a minicab picked me up at 4 Millbank to take me to the BBC, the driver simply did not know the direct and frequently travelled route. Finally, it makes sense for drivers to have some form of identification, so that, when passengers step into their cabs, they are secure in the knowledge that the drivers have complied with the requirements of the Bill.

Black cabs need have no fear of the legislation. In the past, black cab organisations have raised objections, and in March 1993, Vivian Bendall—the former Member for Ilford, North—argued in an Adjournment debate that licensing minicabs would undermine the black cab trade. That debate, however, took place five years ago, and the need for legislation is ever more pressing.

As studies by the Consumers Association show, most people think that minicabs should be regulated. As other hon. Members have pointed out, a host of organisations support the Bill. I am particularly glad that the London Taxi Board—which represents 95 per cent. of drivers, owners and manufacturers of London taxis—also broadly supports it.

I believe that the Bill will allow black cabs and minicabs to co-exist, each serving different needs and each operating differently. The added costs that black cab drivers must currently meet will be offset by the fact that only they will be able to ply for trade: it will still only be possible to hire a minicab in advance by telephone. I am sure that the status quo will be maintained—that minicabs will continue to predominate in outer London, while black cabs will be a more frequent sight in inner and central London. There will be few losers, and many winners.

I fully support this much-needed legislation, which will ensure peace of mind and the operation of minimum standards. It will bring us into line with the rest of the country, and will ensure that—tourist or Londoner, young woman or elderly shopper—we can all get into a cab safely.

11.51 am
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on her concise speech, with which I broadly agreed. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on his Bill, and hope that it makes good progress. As many hon. Members will know, my right hon. Friend's e-mail address is "cyclebart", followed by "parliament" dot "uk" dot—or perhaps "dotty". I hope that, once the Bill becomes law, he will change his address to "taxitoff'. He ought to be recognised in future as one who has done a good deal for the taxi trade in this great capital city.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke)—who is not in the Chamber now—made, yet again, a beautiful speech. He is gaining a reputation—if, indeed, he did not gain it in earlier Parliaments—for producing beautifully crafted speeches at short notice. I hope that in future all London taxis will contain the sign "This taxi diverts to the House of Commons when Mr. Brooke is speaking".

The issue is not whether minicabs should be regulated, but the means by which they should be regulated. I hope that the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) will not mind if we try to enact the Bill as soon as possible, and allow the Public Carriage Office, or other non-parliamentary bodies, to tighten the regulations after consulting interested parties.

The debate allows us to pay tribute to London's licensed black cab trade. For obvious reasons, the hon. Member for Eltham uttered fulsome praise, both on the basis of his personal experience and, I believe, from the dispassionate viewpoint of a Member of Parliament. However, many of our constituents and relations who have visited London have been helped by black cab drivers, and the charitable acts performed by the trade as a whole are well known to us. The hon. Member for Barking gave an example of the kindness of individual London taxi drivers to people in trouble.

The debate also gives us an opportunity to make it clear that not all minicab firms should be deprecated for misconduct or for owning and controlling shabby vehicles. It may surprise some Labour Members to hear that I used to work for the Daily Mirror. Cabs were provided to take us home, as there was little public transport after midnight. In fact, the form of transport with which we were provided by Mr. Robert Maxwell and his predecessors was the minicab.

Those minicab drivers were excellent people, with clean, neat cars. They were very polite, obviously, but they were also safe to travel with. I do not believe that any of the women who were employed by the Daily Mirror at the time were ever in danger. Let us not smear all minicab drivers with the allegations that have been bandied about today.

Hon. Members may wonder why the Member of Parliament for Harborough is speaking in a debate about London taxis, but the Bill will be welcomed by my constituents—especially the taxi drivers who claim to labour under far stricter regulations than those currently applicable to the London minicab trade. Harborough district council is rightly strict in its application of standards of excellence and good conduct to local taxi drivers, a number of whom have lost their licences as a result of misconduct—not necessarily in the context of their work. One taxi driver lost his licence following an assault in a public house, which had nothing to do with his work. The district council rightly took him to court and invited the magistrates to relieve him of his licence, because they did not consider him a fit and proper person to drive a taxi and take members of the public about in it. I am pleased that the Bill will introduce similar checks and standards for London minicab drivers.

Clauses 1, 7, 10 and 14 deal with the standard of vehicles, and with licensing. I agree with the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox)—who is not here now—that every licensed minicab should display on its dashboard, or in another prominent position, not only the driver's licence but a photograph of him or her. Both should be large enough for a passenger in the back seat to see them properly. I urge minicab passengers to sit in the back of the vehicle. I appreciate the concerns about the safety of women using minicabs, and that simple step would make it more difficult for dangerous men to interfere with them. I agree with the hon. Member for Barking and other hon. Members that, until we properly regulate the minicab trade in London, women will be in danger. I am delighted to see in the House some women Members who may be able to speak about their experiences and those of other women. I am sure that the Minister will support her hon. Friends in doing that.

Another cohort of people who need protection are foreigners, who may be duped by some minicab operators. They can be taken on long journeys at great expense, although those of us who know London and black cab drivers would take a much more direct and cheaper route. I speak about not just protecting foreign users of taxis: we should be careful to ensure also that all taxi drivers, whether in black cabs or saloon cars, can speak and understand English. It is not unusual for users of private hire vehicles to find that the driver not only cannot read a map but is bad at English. I think that it was the master of Balliol college, Oxford at the beginning of this century who said: my name is Jowett. There's no knowledge but I know it. I am Master of this college: What I don't know isn't knowledge. I hope that we can improve the knowledge of private hire drivers so that they can get up to the standard of drivers of licensed black cabs.

I do not accept the concern of the hon. Member for Eltham on his "may" or "will" point about the Secretary of State's ability to make regulations about the knowledge of London. The Bill as drafted is adequate to cope with the problem of lack of knowledge, and I invite the hon. Gentleman not to table amendments.

Clause 4 is valuable because it allows peer pressure. When I first read the Bill, I feared that it did not place an obligation on the operators or radio operators who control the self-employed private hire drivers to ensure that vehicles under their control met the stringent standards that I hope they will have to meet. Unless taxi fleet controllers are so obliged and are in jeopardy of being fined or punished in some other way, minicab drivers will be allowed by careless or reckless taxi firm owners to flout the regulations.

Many minicab drivers are not well off. Some of them may be on benefit and working illegally, and I should like to see that end of the market cleaned up. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire on his Bill. I wish it well and hope that it makes speedy progress.

12.2 pm

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on his good fortune in securing fourth place in the ballot. I congratulate him even more on his wisdom in introducing a Bill on this subject. He knows that he has my support for his initiative because, last week, I tabled an early-day motion welcoming proposals to regulate London's minicab trade and create higher standards of safety and service. The EDM also calls on the Government to ensure the introduction of appropriate checks on drivers in the context of criminal records, health and topographical knowledge, and asks them to put the maximum emphasis on enforcement.

All safety legislation and most philosophies of customer service are based on competence allied to sound procedures so that the right person does the right job at the right time and in the right way. The Bill's main strands concentrate on those objectives. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, as many of my constituents have a significant interest in those issues, either as users of minicabs or through their connections with the licensed taxi industry.

Ilford, North is famed for the number of licensed taxi drivers who live in the area. There has been no precise survey, but they certainly number thousands. Indeed, Geoffrey Riesel, the chairman of Radio Taxis and a member of the London Taxi Board, who will be well known to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and to my hon. Friend the Minister, is one of my constituents and has been a fruitful source of information. He is here with his colleagues in the Gallery today.

As the House would expect, I also pay tribute to the role of the licensed taxi industry within London's transport services. Across the world, London's taxis are rightly renowned for providing the highest standards of service and safety. Compared to those who live in other international cities such as Paris or New York, the people of London and everyone who works in, or visits, our capital city are extremely fortunate to have such an excellent service. I am pleased to say that other hon. Members have already acknowledged that excellence—it is nice to hear other hon. Members praising my constituents so highly. However, as I have said, many of my constituents have an interest in the Bill because they are frequent users of minicabs. I believe that they have a right to expect minicab regulation to ensure their personal safety as well as a good-quality service.

As a woman who uses minicabs from time to time and as the mother of two teenage daughters who often have to depend on local minicabs for transport, particularly at night, I am well aware of the potential risks involved if adequate checks on cars and drivers are not carried out. I warmly welcome the Bill's intention to put that right.

Only two days ago, I received a letter from a constituent complaining that she had been involved in an accident with a minicab. She said that the driver was uninsured and refused to give any details; in addition, the minicab company for which he worked also refused assistance.

I am pleased to see that a demonstration of topographical competence for minicab licensing is mentioned in the Bill. That is important, as it should enable the legislation to be flexible in coping with changing demands over the years and to provide high levels of safety and service to passengers. I know that there is strong support among Londoners for some form of topographical training for London's minicab drivers. It is safety on which we have rightly focused here today.

To support that view, I refer to the considered views of Mr. David Rogers, the road safety adviser to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, who writes: I can see no good reason for NOT requiring anyone who is offering the service of a taxi (or private hire vehicle) to have a basic understanding of the local topography. There is little doubt in my mind that any form of 'distraction' which takes the attention of the driver from his/her main task—that of managing the vehicle safely—is potentially dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. In purely safety terms, these controls and actions which are NOT essential to the safe management of the vehicle, should be kept strictly to a minimum. Thus, the driver who consults a map while attempting to drive is fundamentally reducing their ability to cope. It follows then, that the drive who is able, without reference to a map, to carry passengers to their destination is by far a safer driver". That is perfect common sense.

Hon. Members who are drivers—not least those of us who have recently had to learn the new topography of our constituencies following boundary changes—will be well aware from their own driving experiences that, when we are lost and have to look for road signs or at maps, our driving safety is reduced as our concentration is focused elsewhere.

We can all provide horror stories about journeys with minicab drivers who had no idea where they were heading. My hon. Friends the Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Barking (Ms Hodge) gave graphic examples of that and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Gartner) also alluded to it. There are obvious difficulties for tourists in London as they may have the added disadvantage of language problems; they may be unable to communicate anything other than their hoped-for destination to the driver.

The knowledge of London examinations were instituted following severe criticism of the service provided by the hackney carriage trade at the Great Exhibition in Hyde park in 1851. Do we really want history to repeat itself at the millennium celebrations around London in the year 2000, when we expect even larger numbers of people, many of whom may choose to use minicabs, to visit the capital? Our capital city is our country's showpiece, attracting millions of visitors. If visitors suffer adverse experiences as they attempt to get around the sights, their negative impressions will be taken back to their home countries and Britain's reputation abroad may be affected.

It is not just transitory visitors who are inconvenienced by such incompetence; it is a problem for the many vulnerable London residents who, for reasons or age or disability, are not able to assist the driver with navigational directions. I am always extremely irritated when a minicab driver expects me to know the exact route to my destination, even though I may never have been there. It is quite simple—I expect a professional driver to be capable of delivering me safely to where I wish to go, without having to worry about carrying the "Master Atlas of Greater London" in my head.

The London Private Hire Car Association is to be congratulated on having fought for such a Bill for many years, but it argues that its drivers need little or no topographical training as they can pre-plan a journey using an "A to Z". That is not a convincing argument, and it goes against best practice already operating in the large metropolitan areas outside London, where private hire drivers and licensed taxi drivers have to pass similar or identical topographical tests. I am also fairly certain that little pre-planning of routes actually takes place, as many jobs are given to the drivers at the last minute or without much notice. I am disappointed that the association's argument appears to have been made for commercial reasons rather than on the basis of safety or quality of service. While it should be rightly proud of having campaigned for such legislation, it should not seek it on the cheap. This is our chance to legislate for a service that is up to a standard and not down to a price. Without that, inevitably we shall find ourselves stuck in a cul de sac of unfulfilled good intentions or, even worse, going the wrong way down the one-way street of public expectation.

I also understand that the case for knowledge-based topographical training has been made by many professional bodies, including the Confederation of British Industry, London First, ROSPA, the British Incoming Tour Operators Association and, of course, the Consumers Association. I look forward to that issue and others being discussed in more detail with the appropriate regulators, the Minister and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire as the Bill progresses through the House.

In particular, I am concerned—as are other hon. Members—about the wording of clause 13(3), which relates to the issue of topographical knowledge. It states: The Secretary of State may require applicants to show to his satisfaction (whether by taking a test or otherwise) that they possess an appropriate level of knowledge of London and of general topographical skills. The word "may" is also used elsewhere in the Bill with reference to other conditions for granting a licence—for example, criminal records and health checks. I presume that that means that the Secretary of State may not require those conditions to be met if he feels so minded. That has certainly caused some apprehension in the taxi industry.

The London Taxi Board also has reservations about other parts of the Bill, including the omission of a requirement on London's operators to display or record fares, given that there is no requirement for fares to be controlled by the Secretary of state; the obligations on owners of licensed vehicles where the Bill is not specific enough about a set period for vehicle checks—unlike other authorities outside London, where six-monthly checks are required; the identification of licensed vehicles where clarification is needed on when, why and how exemptions would be required; and taxi meters.

Although no private hire vehicle is required to be fitted with a meter, there is provision for the testing of taxi meters for vehicles that are fitted with them. The fear is that, without Government control of fares, an unscrupulous operator could set unreasonably high fares and justify them by saying, "It's on a Government-approved meter." The London Taxi Board is against private hire vehicles being fitted with meters.

The LTB also has concerns about the power to suspend or revoke licences. The Bill proposes that action if a driver is convicted of dishonesty, indecency or violence. However, I know from the many black cab drivers to whom I spoke before and after the general election that they would like touting to be added to that list. Taxi drivers feel strongly about touting and about the current non-enforcement of measures prohibiting it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) said, the London Taxi Board is also concerned about the prohibition of signs, notices and advertisements.

As hon. Members have already said today, another potential problem with the Bill is whether the intended regulatory body—the Public Carriage Office—will be able to cope with the licensing requirements that the legislation would delegate to it. Will the PCO really be able to take on a large increase in work load without extra resources and considerable enlargement and internal restructuring, both physically and in human resources?

One reason why we now have so many minicabs in London is that licensed taxi provision has not been able to grow to meet the demand for personal public transport. Such provision has been restricted in size and has therefore concentrated on working in central London, with consequential poor coverage in the suburbs. It is a vicious circle of passengers and drivers looking for each other in the same, relatively limited areas, so that other areas become almost completely neglected.

The Public Carriage Office has a proud history that can be traced back more than 300 years, to the hackney coach office of 1662. The genesis of the Metropolitan police's traffic responsibilities can be found in the London Hackney Carriages Act 1843. In the 10 years following 1903, the PCO was responsible for administering the virtually wholesale change of 11,000 horse-drawn cabs to motor cabs.

Unfortunately, there is little doubt that the main reason for slow growth in the number of licensed taxi drivers is the Public Carriage Office's outdated method of testing for the knowledge. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, it can take up to three years to pass the knowledge test, and that is clearly unsatisfactory. The test is administered in a succession of oral examinations. However, only five examiners are based in the PCO, and it often takes six months for candidates to be given an appointment for their next test. Test procedures, not training, are the barrier to entry.

I welcome the remarks made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire about the indications that he has received on staff increases and even about a dedicated minicab unit—although my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham has already expressed reservations about how many staff may be needed in such a unit.

In scrutinising the Bill and in examining the issues, I hope that we shall ensure that the process is reformed. I believe that drivers, as they learn the relevant information, could pass the knowledge test just as quickly using a modern testing system, and perhaps by using a computerised test. I foresee no reason why a strong candidate could not pass a knowledge of London test in six months to one year—which is the time that longer-qualified drivers told me that it took them to pass the knowledge with no changes in the knowledge syllabus.

Testing and the issues that it raises are fundamental to the Bill. The Public Carriage Office will have to introduce topographical knowledge tests for minicab drivers that are stringent enough to ensure that safety and quality standards are maintained but that do not create an unnecessary bureaucratic barrier to entry, as they do in the taxi industry. It would be most encouraging if the Minister would undertake to review the current functions and activities of the Public Carriage Office, so that we can be certain that it will be able to meet the new responsibilities placed upon it. If it cannot meet those responsibilities, what alternatives will be available?

I should be amazed to discover that—regardless of its bureaucracy's efficiency and flexibility—a Public Carriage Office established in 1850 to administer fewer than 11,000 horse-drawn vehicles, with a knowledge radius of four miles from Charing Cross, is really the most appropriate long-term organisation to administer the current 22,000 licensed taxi drivers and more than 50,000 minicab drivers across the 800 square miles of the Metropolitan police district.

I hope also that the Government will consider introducing legislation to enable the Public Carriage Office to charge taxi and minicab drivers for sitting tests. Doing so would ensure that an unfair burden does not fall on the licence fees of those who have already qualified. In addition, I plead for effective and properly funded enforcement to police the new regime. Without that, an illegal and, in many cases, uninsured and unsafe third tier will continue to ply and tout for business at the expense of those in the taxi and minicab industries who go through thorough vetting and testing procedures.

Any hon. Member who has had the opportunity, as the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) clearly has—he is no longer in his place— to watch or perhaps record for later viewing, as I did, the early episodes of the new BBC sitcom "Roger Roger" about a minicab firm, may remember a particular scene in the second programme last week. A potential new driver was being interviewed by another new driver so that his suitability could be assessed. Not much progress was made beyond the question, "Have you got a clean licence?"

I am not saying that that sort of casual vetting is true to life, but if it has even a remote resonance, the Bill in its final form should go a long way towards putting in place long-overdue regulation of the private hire trade. My constituents and people all over our great capital city, which is the best place in the world to live and work, deserve no less. We are justifiably proud of our unique black cab service. Let us work together to secure a safe and efficient service for residents, workers and visitors who choose to travel by minicab.

12.20 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on his luck in the ballot and on choosing such a sensible subject for his Bill. This is an ideal private Member's Bill. I also congratulate him on his bravery, because those who have tried to reform the London taxi trade over the years have always suffered as a result—I hope that he does not. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) mentioned Charles I who subsequently lost his head; Oliver Cromwell tried to introduce reform of the trade and was deposed; and the former Member for Epping Forest, Mr. Steve Norris, considered a similar measure in the previous Parliament.

I am sure that all my hon. Friends will welcome the fact that one problem has finally been resolved. Whenever we used to get taxis outside the Palace of Westminster, the taxi driver would ask whether we were Members of Parliament; he would then ask whether we were Conservatives and whether we knew Steve Norris. When we said yes, we would have our ears bent for the rest of the journey about the iniquities of what Steve Norris was proposing. If the licensed taxi trade does not like what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire is proposing, he should be rather careful, when making his elegant way through London's squares, that he is not knocked off his bicycle by an angry taxi driver.

I am grateful to the London Taxi Board for supplying me with material and for supporting the Bill, which is long overdue. Let us make no mistake about it—the Bill will have a profound effect on the minicab business because it will remove an enormous number of people from it. That is a good thing, but it will mean that minicabs will be more expensive and it might reduce the size of the market.

Mention has been made of a special knowledge test for minicab drivers, but we do not know how many minicab drivers there are. There could be 60,000 or even as many as 80,000. In response to the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham), let me say that imposing a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that everyone who drives a minicab should pass a topographical test will mean that he will have the formidable job of testing 80,000 people simply to ensure that they can continue to do what they have been doing for years.

Mr. Efford

The Bill allows for the Secretary of State to accept grandfather rights for existing minicab drivers. If they could demonstrate that they had been plying their trade for a given period, it could be acceptable for them to continue to do so. I think that everyone would find that perfectly sensible. Of course, the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be interested to see whether they could produce their tax forms for the previous three years or so.

Mr. Atkinson

I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I agree that it will be a problem. I anticipate that there will be far fewer people driving minicabs when the Bill becomes law.

I do not use minicabs very often, but the other day I took one from west London to get back here for a 10 o'clock vote. I had to direct the driver as the only place that he knew was Hyde park corner. When we arrived at the Palace of Westminster, I asked him to drive into Members' Entrance and he refused point blank. I suspect that he was an illegal immigrant or an asylum seeker who should not have been working and he insisted on dropping me some distance away. Obviously, when the Bill becomes law, such people will quite rightly go out of business.

It is important that the black cab trade understands which way it wants to go. It appears that the black cab trade is trying to bring the minicab trade closer to it by insisting on a more formal knowledge test similar to that taken by black cab drivers and by regulating the vehicles. My advice to the black cab industry would be to maintain the distance between black cabs and minicabs. There should be a light touch in regulation in terms of knowledge. People who use minicabs should know that, although they may be cheaper, they are distinctly inferior to the black cabs that ply for hire on London's streets. We should not try to bring up the standards of minicab drivers too much, as that would challenge the existing black cab industry, which I greatly support.

The Bill gives me an opportunity to praise the black cab industry. I represent a Northumberland constituency that is rather remote from the affairs of London. Nevertheless, black cabs provide my constituents with an important service. Many of them have been helped by London taxi drivers when they have lost their wallets or got into trouble. One farmer in Northumberland, who had never been to London before, was persuaded to go to the Royal Smithfield show. When he arrived, he found the people and the crowds totally unacceptable, so he hailed a black cab outside Earls Court and said, "Alnwick, please." I am pleased to report that the driver took him there, although the bill was very large. That is the kind of service that black cab drivers give the public.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North mentioned an issue that was raised by the London Taxi Board—whether minicabs should have meters. I agree with the hon. Lady that minicabs should not have meters as that would give an official stamp to the fares being charged. If someone staying at a London hotel asked a minicab driver to take him to Heathrow airport, the meter could be set to produce an extortionate fare. If the customer complained that it was twice what he would be charged in a black cab, the driver could say that it was the official fare. I understand the problems involved and I await an explanation from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire or from the Minister as to why it is proposed to allow meters in minicabs.

A further point relates to the identification of the vehicle. In provincial cities, there has been a problem with people regarding private hire vehicles as taxis because of the advertisements on the sides of the vehicles. I know that the Bill includes restrictions on the use of the words "taxi" or "cab", but it is important that there should be nothing on a minicab other than the essential identity to show that it is a licensed minicab.

I welcome the Bill and wish it a safe passage through the House. I hope that some of the concerns of the London Taxi Board will be addressed in greater detail when the Bill is considered in another place. It is long overdue and will be welcomed by people who live in London and visitors to the city.

12.27 pm
Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford)

There is considerable interest in the Bill in my constituency and I thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for introducing it. I hope that it will not be too long before this overdue legislation is on the statute book.

I represent a part of London with a large taxi driver population. As it is on the edge of London, many of my constituents are also regular users of minicabs. In Romford, we are lucky to have a flourishing taxi rank just by the market that enables the local community to use the services of what I consider to be one of the finest taxi fleets in the world. The distinctive purpose-built vehicles, with their extra space, distinctive shape, regulated fares, wheelchair accessibility and knowledge-trained drivers provide guaranteed safety for all who use them.

I support the main aims of the Bill, although I have some reservations about the detail. The regulation of minicabs in London is important and long overdue. It will improve standards of safety and service for all passengers, especially those who need protection, such as the elderly, women, tourists and the disabled.

Knowing that I would be seeking to speak in the debate, I have done some market testing this week, taking a black cab and a minicab. I took a black cab from the taxi rank opposite Romford station to my home. I could see how much the journey was costing me on the meter. The cab was comfortable, it had seat belts and safety catches on the doors and the taxi driver knew the route. It was a relaxing journey after a long day in this place.

I shall not identify the firm that I used for my minicab journey. When I was picked up, I could not get in on the pavement side because of a large container of—I presume—water on the floor in the back. I had to get into the car on the road side. The driver burped—perhaps I should repeat that; he burped—all the way to my destination. I was not sure whether it was a political comment. I was glad that it was a short journey. The driving may not have been dangerous, but it was fairly unpleasant. When we arrived, the driver said, "What do you think then—about two quid?"

That was not a huge sample for market testing, but it was consistent with my previous experiences. I used a black cab to get here this morning.

We must avoid introducing a watered-down registration scheme that would do little to protect customers and could harm the future of the licensed taxi trade by creating unfair competition. I am sure that all hon. Members want the licensed taxi trade to continue to play an important part in the everyday life of London. That is why it is important—I am glad that this is proposed—that there should be checks on minicab operators, as well as on a driver's criminal record, health, vehicle and topographical knowledge.

As the Government develop an integrated transport policy, taxis and minicabs will play an increasingly important role in our everyday lives. They can ensure that public transport provision is available in areas in which other transport providers cannot operate efficiently, as well as providing an effective alternative to the use of the private car. Taxis allow members of the travelling public to transfer between other transport termini and reach their destination having covered their entire journey by public transport.

Any legislation affecting personal transport services should be scrutinised carefully to determine its potential impact on the licensed taxi industry. The available market for the licensed taxi is relatively small. If demand decreased, manufacturers of the purpose-built, highly specialised vehicle would rapidly become unable to continue to produce it on a sound economic footing. That would soon lead to a terminal decline in the taxi industry.

The topographical training test must be introduced, based on local geographical knowledge. A map-reading test alone will not guarantee high enough levels of safety. The topographical training referred to in clause 13(3) should be a requirement, not at the discretion of the Secretary of State. The clause should say "will", not "may".

We have all been asked for directions by minicab drivers, or seen them flicking through their map book. That is not good enough. They must have a working knowledge of their local streets. That is already the situation in most of the large metropolitan areas outside London, where taxi and minicab drivers have to pass an identical topographical training test.

I also do not agree that, as minicabs are pre-booked, there is time for the driver to look up a pre-planned route. The commercial realities of minicab services dictate that that is not possible. When a minicab turns up, the driver usually asks, "Where to?" Drivers clearly do not have the time to plan journeys in advance—and what happens when passengers change their minds about where they want to go after making the booking? I often do not know exactly where I am going. If I have been invited to a meeting or a reception, I may have the address, but I often do not have a clue how to get there. I rely on the taxi driver to get me to my destination safely. As my family will testify, I have a very poor sense of direction and I do not believe that it is my job to plan a route for someone whom I am paying to get me to the right place at the right time.

I have travelled in minicabs when neither the driver nor I had a clue where we were. We would not accept that from a train driver: he could not say, "I think you turn left at Watford and then take the first right." We would be miffed if a black cab driver did not know the route. So why should we accept that standard from minicab drivers? The large licensed radio taxi circuits operate almost identically, dispatching the nearest cab a few minutes before the pick-up time. There can be no justification for not introducing similar standards for both groups.

Sambrook Research International conducted independent market research in 1994 into the operational behaviour of private hire companies. The survey revealed that 70 to 80 per cent. of booking calls to minicab companies requested a car as soon as possible. Almost all minicab companies stated that they allocated their drivers to a job within less than half an hour of the pick-up time. In fact, many claimed to allocate journeys within 10 to 15 minutes of pick-up, depending on which driver was in the area. That empirical evidence strongly suggests that a minicab driver must have local topographical knowledge and should not rely on his ability to read maps.

I wish to refer briefly to the operation of licensing and testing procedures for minicabs and taxis. On a recent visit to the operation centre of Computercab, London's biggest licensed radio taxi circuit, with more than 2,000 drivers—many of whom are my constituents—I was amazed to learn that taxi drivers are still tested for their knowledge on the basis of a one-to-one oral examination. That means that the process is very slow and drivers must wait a long time for appointments. As a result, growth in the licensed taxi industry has been impeded. It is one of the reasons why people cannot find enough taxis on the street and must resort to using minicabs.

During my visit to Computercab, I saw a demonstration of some computer software that could revolutionise the industry. It will allow geographical knowledge to be tested by using interactive computer screens. It is impressive technology and I am sure that it offers one solution to the problem of testing both taxi and minicab drivers in the future. Such tests would be efficient, rigorous and fair and would not compromise standards.

I urge the Minister and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire to look at the system and consider how it may be implemented by the Public Carriage Office. I join other hon. Members in making a personal plea for enforcement. Without the resources to tackle illegal minicabs and those who tout and ply for trade, the same problems will be with us even after the Bill is enacted. I hope that the resources from licence fees will be channelled into that area.

While much work clearly remains to be done, I give my support, on behalf of my constituents, to the intentions of the Bill as it passes through this and the other place. We hope to see the development of a much improved personal transport service that will assist the Government in meeting the aims of their integrated transport policy and will ensure a safer and better quality service for those who use minicabs.

12.38 pm
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. I am proud to inform the House that the trust is located in my constituency. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is a trustee of that trust, as well as a sponsor of the Bill.

I would like to add to the comments that have already been made about Diana and Paul Lamplugh. They are a remarkably courageous couple and I am proud that they are my constituents. The tragic disappearance and loss of their daughter have led them to campaign tirelessly and relentlessly for the safety of my daughter and of all our daughters—and of our sons too. As Diana Lamplugh is always anxious to point out, the issue affects young men as well as young women. Young men can be attacked and abused, just as young women can. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to the Lamplughs and acknowledging the debt that we owe them.

Who uses minicabs? The House has dwelt on that subject this morning. We have heard about elderly people and young people. Hospital patients, too, use minicabs. A hospital patient in my constituency who had ordered a minicab to take her home was sent home in her nightie to an empty house. That was the fault of the hospital trust, but it shows how vulnerable minicab passengers can be.

The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) has said a lot about disabled people in wheelchairs, but most disabled people prefer minicabs because they find it easier to get in and out of them. Disabled people do not necessarily have a wheelchair and they need to be able to get in and out of the car easily, so they use minicabs.

Minicabs are used in the suburbs. My constituency is in the suburbs and people there rely a lot on minicabs. We must ask why that is so. One reason is that people do not feel safe on public transport late at night. There are no guards on the trains, no staff at the stations and no conductors on the buses, so people feel that they will be safer in a minicab.

The hon. Member for Eltham has now returned to the Chamber, and I must tell him that drivers of black cabs often refuse to go to the suburbs. The one time that I was verbally abused by such a driver was when I asked to be taken to that distant place, Kew Gardens. He said it would take him all night and he did not want to take me there. I ask the hon. Member for Eltham to put his own house in order and tell black cab drivers that they are their own worst enemies. If they want to defend their business against minicabs they must ensure that they give the best service to, and treat with the utmost courtesy, the people who want to use their taxis in the suburbs.

Mr. Efford

I take the point. I am sure that everyone has their own examples of such experiences with London taxi drivers. The six-mile limit was introduced to protect the horses, but there seems to be no limit to protect the working day of a licensed taxi driver. If at the end of a driver's working day he is asked to travel more than six miles in the opposite direction from the place in which he will finish work and go home, it causes him great stress by adding hours to his working day. We must consider the fatigue of the driver as well as the desire of the passenger.

Dr. Tonge

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because I had intended to talk about that in connection with one of my great worries about the minicab drivers I have come across. I am sure we all have the experience of finding out that many minicab drivers have other jobs during the day. There seem to be no regulations governing how long they can work. They may work hard during the day at one job and become minicab drivers at night. That is not safe either for the driver or for the public, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject.

I speak as a parent with three children—now grown-up, thank goodness—who had many hilarious years when they were teenagers trying to get them home safely at night. I speak also as a doctor in women's services, who has counselled young women who have had terrible experiences. It is sad to say that, in my clinical experience, I have seen many such women who have had bad experiences in minicabs. This is the way I would describe the scenario: "It's very late, and mum and dad have threatened you with I don't know what if you don't get home; you phone a number which may be on one of those cards dropped through the door, or which a friend may have; you go and wait outside, because you don't want to disturb your friend's mum and dad; you wait outside on the pavement so the driver doesn't have to knock on the door, but you are then prey to anyone who claims to be a minicab driver."

I have had rambling tours of the countryside around Elstree studios when minicab drivers have not known the way. However, my best experience has been caused by the fact that the numbering of my road in Kew is very bad and drivers can never find our house. Usually, when a minicab comes to pick me up to take me to Broadcasting house, for example, I go and stand outside on the pavement, swinging my bag—much to the consternation of my neighbours, who wonder what my new job as a Member of Parliament entails.

It is a dangerous situation. Recently, on the borders of my constituency, a young girl came out of a club and was picked up by what she thought was a minicab. She was taken to a side road and raped. That happened within the past seven days.

Once the Bill is enacted, we must have a publicity drive to tell people that minicabs must be licensed and that people must check on that. The polling I have done of young, elderly and disabled people suggests that people already think that minicabs are licensed. They think that because cabs are licensed in other cities, they are somehow the same as black cabs and are quite safe. We know that that is not true. Once the Bill is enacted, we need sufficient publicity to alert people to the fact that they must check that proper licensing has taken place.

In conclusion, we know that the Bill has tremendous support. The National Council of Women, London First, the London Private Hire Car Association, organisations for the disabled and the aged, doctors, teachers, youth workers, Members of Parliament and—most of all—parents desperately want the Bill to become law. I hope that the Bill will have a safe passage with no dissent.

12.47 pm
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Many points have been made during the debate, and one of the hazards of being called later in a debate is that one must scrap much of one's speech. I should like to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford). As a licensed cab driver, he not only contributed much valuable information, but proved one point—in a long speech of almost an hour—which no other hon. Member could have proved; that whenever one finds oneself in a confined space with a cabbie, it is the devil's own job to get him to stop talking.

This is the age of jet aircraft, when one airport looks very much like another and one city looks very much like another—they all have their McDonald's and their Benetton. Prior to 1997, I was engaged in a job that took me to many cities throughout the world. The one thing that always helped me to tell which city I was in was the cab or taxi that I took.

In one south Italian city, I took a cab from the docks and asked to be taken to the airport—a journey of some seven miles in a south-westerly direction. I sat in the back of the cab with the map on my lap, watched and traced the journey as we veered round 180 degrees and ended up three miles north-west of where we had started. As we passed that city's famous football stadium, where Maradona was playing at the time, I shouted to the driver to stop and, to cries of, "What's the problem?" I pointed out on the map our start point, our supposed destination at the airport and our present position. We returned to the dock, zeroed the clock and followed the more direct route to the airport.

I have been the scourge of cab drivers in St. Petersburg, New York, Athens, Naples and Barcelona. I have come to know most of the tricks that they exercise on punters: the broken meter; the "times two"; picking up an extra passenger on the way; the picture postcard carefully, if not tastefully, positioned in front of the meter; and, the road closure, that "wasn't there this morning, honestly". It has been a relief to me to return to London and to the black cab—to quality, reliability and safety.

The Bill would lessen the gaps between black cabs and private hire vehicles on those essential points of quality, reliability and safety. I shall focus on safety and reliability. It has been said that in London alone of all our cities a person can finish off a prison sentence for rape in the morning, sign on where there is a sign saying "Drivers wanted" in the afternoon and be driving a woman home unaccompanied late at night. That is a disgrace.

I welcome the fact that clause 13(2) will insist that private hire vehicle drivers must be licensed as "fit and proper" persons. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, "Let us not smear all minicab drivers." The Bill is about ensuring that the proper regulations that everyone would expect to be in place are in place. I also welcome clause 14(3), which insists that drivers must wear their badge in a prominent position so that they can be clearly identified by their passengers.

Reliability is not just about the cars themselves: it is about the extent to which passengers can rely on getting expeditiously from A to B. Clause 7(2) makes a licence dependent on a vehicle being suitable and safe. I urge the House to consider amending clause 13(3) so that it says that the Secretary of State "will"—rather than "may"—require applicants to show relevant topographical skills, so that a passenger can be sure that he or she will complete the journey in due time.

Most minicab companies and drivers in this city are hard-working professional business people, who serve thousands of Londoners every day. That is why reputable minicab firms welcome the Bill, as do I. I congratulate its promoter and I am sure that, with the Government's backing, it will become law.

12.54 pm
Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I apologise for the fact that I was not here to hear earlier contributions. I wish that I could tell the House that that was because I could not find a licensed minicab, but it was not.

My constituency, in outer London, has several reputable minicab firms that provide employment and make a valuable contribution to meeting local transport needs. We are also fortunate in Wimbledon to be served by a fleet of black cabs operating from the new forecourt of Wimbledon station, but as we are an outer London district, those cabs can in practice service only one kind of journey, taking people from the town centre back to their nearby homes.

Despite the relatively good provision of public transport, including an important new bus route through Cannon hill and Morden, set up at the instigation of Merton's Labour council, and the Merton-Croydon tram link, now well under way, many of my constituents rely heavily on the local minicab service, from time to time, to get around town. That is especially the case for elderly people and those without a car, but it is also true of many who travel for business purposes, to other areas of London or to Gatwick or Heathrow, and prefer to leave their car at home.

This morning, I spoke to Merton council's head of environmental services, who reinforced my view that minicabs can provide a service over and above that of black cabs in our area, but had many concerns about safety and insurance. The council does not use minicabs at the moment, but it might if they were licensed. The head of environmental services made the point that minicabs are especially useful for elderly people, who may come into town to shop by bus but need a cab to get home.

The Merton voluntary services council, which is considering setting up a car pool and frequently needs minicabs, has many concerns about the safety of vehicles, which often lack wing mirrors and seat belts, and about the safety of women, who often feel vulnerable and harassed as a result of remarks made by unlicensed drivers.

Demand for and supply of minicab services locally are evidenced by the number of business cards from minicab firms that come through our letter boxes each week. Generally, the only information that can be gleaned from the card is the name of the firm and a contact number. The cards may get pinned up on the kitchen notice board in case of emergency, but as one dials the number, how often do the following thoughts spring to mind? Have the drivers been vetted? Will the driver be suitably qualified? What if the driver does not know the road that I want to go to? I am in a hurry, but will the driver know the best route? Will the car be safe and suitable for carrying members of the public? Will it have been regularly serviced and properly maintained? Who is coming to pick me up?

I understand from the local police that many unlicensed minicabs are used by burglars to get away with their loot from the scene of the crime. Is the driver trustworthy? Will the driver be reckless? Will I be harassed? Will I get to my destination in time? How much will the journey cost?

One word added to the business cards could answer those questions and allay many of the fears and anxieties that frequently prevent people who would prefer to use a private hire vehicle from picking up the phone. The word is "licensed". That is the change that the Bill will make, and that is why I support it.

A further reason for using minicabs is that they are sometimes more cost-effective than black cabs. Why should we accept that those who cannot afford a black cab and who use a minicab instead should have less assurance and safety?

The safety aspect is central to this debate. As the Automobile Association found in a recent survey, taxis are most frequently used in London for leisure trips, especially at evenings and weekends to go to and return from social events. While local minicab firms known to the user are seen as a safe option to get to a destination, returning in a black cab is often seen as a safer alternative, especially by women.

One respondent to the AA survey commented that, in the case of a problem with a black cab, all one had to do was take the driver's number and go to Penton street, and the driver could lose his living. With a four-year waiting list for green badges, few drivers will take a chance. The minicab driver or operator is not in the same position. The risks are all on the side of the person making the journey, and many cannot afford to take that chance.

Sometimes one cannot procure a black cab. I found myself in that predicament—as, I am sure, have many other hon. Members—one night before Christmas, when, with my wife and our baby daughter, I waited from 11 pm to 1 am for a black cab outside the House. Eventually, I called a minicab company in Wimbledon, one of those drivers agreed to come and pick us up from Westminster, but only after I had used all my powers of persuasion to convince them that I really was the Member of Parliament for Wimbledon and needed a reliable rescue operation to get my family home.

London as a whole, and my constituents in particular, need a safe licensed minicab service on which they can rely to supplement the black cab service; to discourage them from using their cars in town; and to provide security and convenience when they go about their daily business. Minicabs are clearly needed to supplement black cabs, whose drivers will continue to have the sole right to ply for trade on the streets or the ranks.

The case for minicabs to be regulated is compelling. Licensing will make travel in and around London safer, and will make enforcement and the outlawing of rogue traders easier to police. Incidentally, the London borough of Merton has told me that it would prefer the licensing to be carried out by the Public Carriage Office and not imposed as an additional duty on local authorities. The regulation of the minicab trade will encourage many to use minicabs in combination with public transport, so it will contribute to the Government's plans to deliver an integrated transport strategy to our capital city, as part of our wider plans for a Greater London authority. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.2 pm

The Minister for Transport in London (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I may say with some justification that this debate has shown the House at its best, because we have heard cross-party support for the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) from right hon. and hon. Members, and that support is also shown by the sponsors of his Bill. I am delighted to have the opportunity to support the Bill on behalf of the Government.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was justifiably generous about the support that his Bill has received from many respected organisations. He mentioned Age Concern, RADAR, the police and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. I also wish to pay tribute to all the organisations that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned for the way in which they have for many years campaigned to right this wrong and remove an anomaly that affects London and Londoners.

As many right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, Londoners exclusively, of residents in our cities, are vulnerable to people who claim to be minicab drivers, but who might have different motives for picking us up in their cars. Many hon. Members have related today examples of the genuine dangers that face us all unless the Bill reaches the statute book.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned the conference under the auspices of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust at Stringfellows. He disclaimed any previous knowledge of the interior of that establishment, and I entirely believe him, although there was a ribald response from some hon. Members. The right hon. Gentleman told us how the victim of a particularly horrific incident, a woman called Sally, courageously described the dreadful experience that she had undergone in a minicab. Other speakers have described similar incidents.

Three strands have run through today's debate. It is clear that all hon. Members regard topographical knowledge, enforcement and the vetting of drivers, operators and vehicles as the bedrock of the legislation that is needed. The people of London, and, as many hon. Members pointed out, visitors as well—tourists who come to our great capital city—must be assured that the vehicles that carry them are safe, and that they will not be the victims of brutal physical attack.

Those points were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), in their own individual styles. The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to a problem that could make people particularly vulnerable if the Bill is not passed. He referred to contracts—he admitted that this was based on allegation—for the carriage of children in one instance, and of newly recovered hospital patients in another. In the first instance, the driver had allegedly served a sentence for paedophilia; in the second, the driver was known to have served time in prison for the criminal offences of burglary and brutal assault.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) referred to the requirement for some topographical knowledge. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), speaking with all the weight and gravitas of one who was a member of the Transport Select Committee when it examined the issue, pointed out—as did other hon. Members—that the minicab trade itself wants the legislation. It is prominent in wanting the cowboys, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham called them, to be expelled. My hon. Friend also made the point about topographical knowledge.

I do not think that any hon. Member has suggested that every minicab driver is at heart a criminal, and it would be quite wrong to suggest that. Most drivers are safe, reliable and honest. The Bill is intended to ensure that they are not victims of such allegations; otherwise, the reputation of the whole cab trade—minicabs and black cabs—could be diminished as a result of elements that are clearly criminal.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) made the point that I have just made, although probably more succinctly. He said that most minicabs were safe, but he also drew attention to the potential dangers, and gave a graphic example of a young doctor who was threatened. He, too, paid tribute to the black cab trade—not just the London Taxi Board, which supports the Bill. Like other speakers, he drew attention to the enormous benefit that the black cab provides not only for those who travel in it, but for the whole image of London as a capital city. That tribute was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who related a particularly dangerous incident stemming from personal knowledge and involving a person who had worked for her. My hon. Friend again underlined the fact that the Bill poses no threat whatever to the black cab trade.

There were tributes by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), and in support of the Bill hon. Members suggested how to assure passengers that, should the Bill become law, they can be confident of being in a licensed vehicle with a licensed driver. The hon. and learned Member suggested visible identification in cabs, so that passengers could be assured that the driver was duly licensed and checked.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) spoke about the requirement for some topographical knowledge, and about the resources that the Public Carriage Office would require if it is the licensing authority. She also mentioned enforcement and the issue of meters in minicabs, and underlined the fact that all hon. Members who have participated in the debate have examined the issue in some detail. All those who spoke had direct knowledge of the matter, and had thought about the licensing of minicabs. We are debating public safety, and people must be sure when they use the vehicles that they, the drivers and the operators are safe and reliable.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) praised black cab drivers. I think that his contribution was the only one by a non-London Member. He related a story about one of his constituents. That constituent must be wealthy if he can afford to take a black cab from London to Alnwick. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) made a salient point when she emphasised that taxis and minicabs are perceived by the Government as part of the public transport system. It is important for them to play a proper role in our integrated transport policy.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) paid tribute to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and to Diana Lamplugh, and her speech encapsulated the concerns not just of mothers but of all parents, grandparents and families about the potential dangers that are faced by loved ones out late at night. We must be absolutely reassured about how they will get home if they do not have private vehicles, and public transport is not available. The Government intend to change that. We know that there are inherent dangers in using minicabs in some circumstances.

It seems from his speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) has wide international experience of cabs. He spoke about the need for security and about the reliability of minicabs. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) also spoke about safety not only in the context of the driver but in terms of the vehicle.

It is a pleasure to congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire not on the happy accident of winning fourth place in the ballot, but on taking the opportunity to present a Bill which the debate has shown to be worthy of support. I should also like to congratulate him on the hard work that he has put into bringing his Bill before the House today. I know how much trouble he has taken in preparing the way for it.

I am delighted that the Government were able to agree that parliamentary counsel should do the detailed drafting, although that by no means lifted the burden of excessive work from the right hon. Gentleman's shoulders. I know that he has been both dedicated and energetic in applying himself to the task. He was generous in paying tribute to my Department; I thank him for that, and I should also like to express my gratitude.

I was tempted to make—indeed, I toyed with the possibility of making—some minor party political pleasantries, but I have decided in the spirit of this morning's debate, with the clear cross-party co-operation that we have heard, not to do so. On mature reflection, I decided that they were rather feeble jokes, anyway. I have no doubt that the entire House is relieved—[Interruption.] I hear gratitude pounding in my ears from both sides of the House.

The Government support the Bill. We hope that it succeeds; if by mischance it should not, we shall seek to introduce legislation along the same lines ourselves as soon as parliamentary time permits. We support both the principle of the Bill and its provisions, on which the right hon. Gentleman has been in touch with us and on which he has taken full account of the responses to the consultation that the Government carried out in line with our manifesto commitment. If there should be those who hope that the Bill will fall—I do not believe that anyone of good would take such a view—I cannot, in all honesty, encourage them to think that it will have gone away; it will not.

As more than one hon. Member has said today, it is high time that the disgraceful—I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham used the word "scandalous"—anomaly of London minicab regulation, or lack of it, was remedied. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire described clearly and well how, in almost all the rest of the country, private hire vehicles are regulated, as are taxis. It is only in London, of all our cities, that the minicab trade is unregulated and unlicensed; as all hon. Members have made clear this morning, that must be put right, as a simple matter of public safety. We have, over the years, seen too many attacks upon vulnerable people, particularly women, to allow the present position to continue.

The right hon. Member's Bill seeks to put right the anomaly. In one way, I think that it is right not to overplay the significance of the measure; all the Bill seeks to do is to apply to London the basic system of regulation that already applies throughout the United Kingdom. That is important and necessary, but I do not believe that it will have the dramatic impact on the London taxi trade that has occasionally been suggested.

In saying that, however, I must go on to echo the praise that the right hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members have this morning given to the London taxi trade for the responsible and sensible attitude that it has taken to the Bill. I am second to none in congratulating the trade on that.

Naturally, those interested in the Bill—I believe that that includes every hon. Member who has been present this morning—have asked for information on a number of points, including who will be the regulatory authority. I can confirm that, as and when the Bill becomes law, the Secretary of State intends to use the power in clause 24 to delegate his functions to the Metropolitan police and, in particular, to the Public Carriage Office. That will be widely recognised as sensible.

The PCO already regulates the London taxi trade, and is generally seen to do so carefully and fairly. It has experience and expertise in the subject, and it also has the right geographical coverage, being responsible for the whole of London. Any smaller unit within London might raise problems of cross-border discrepancies. I am glad to tell the House that the Metropolitan police have agreed to take on that task, and I am grateful to them, as I am sure are right hon. and hon. Members, for that agreement.

Looking to the slightly longer term, I think that it will probably be right for the regulatory function for both taxis and minicabs to pass to the proposed Greater London authority, perhaps by a transfer of the PCO itself. We shall be considering the legislation to establish the GLA with that in mind.

Enforcement has also been mentioned by more than one hon. Member. It was touched on by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, and we all recognise its importance for any system of regulation. I am glad to confirm that the Metropolitan police envisage the establishment of a special unit to enforce the provisions of this Bill, should it become law—checking on licensed minicab operators and drivers, and their vehicles, to ensure that all the requirements of their licences are being fulfilled.

That unit may number about 20, although the precise figure needs to be worked out. It will have the various powers provided in this Bill. Minicab operators will know not only that they stand to be charged with the offences also provided for in the Bill, but that, if convicted, they will face not just a fine, but the loss of their licence, and thus their chance to work in the minicab trade. That is a sanction that has been lacking for far too long in London. The minicab enforcement unit would be financed from minicab licence fees, with no cross-subsidy from the taxi trade.

In addition, of course, it will remain the duty of all London police officers to enforce the law on taxis and minicabs. I know that the PCO will take steps to ensure that all officers are properly informed of the provisions of this Bill, should it become law.

I understand that the Metropolitan police are also considering the possibility of increasing the number of police officers specialising in minicab and taxi enforcement, drawing on licence fee income. Effective enforcement is in the interest of all reputable licence holders in the taxi or minicab trades, who cannot welcome unfair competition from those who try to practise outside the law.

We have also heard about topographical knowledge testing for minicab drivers. Again, it is an issue that hon. Members on both sides of the House highlighted as of great importance. I know that it is an important topic not only within but outside the House.

I would stress the significance of the express provision in clause 13(3) for knowledge testing. There is no such provision in any of the legislation dealing with London taxis, or with taxis or minicabs outside London. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) was correct to say that local authorities outside London may impose a knowledge test, but clause 13(3) is the first statutory requirement for topographical knowledge. It is a first, and it should be acknowledged as such.

Certainly the provision is in general terms. It provides that the Secretary of State "may" rather than "must" require applicants to show that they posses an appropriate knowledge of London, whether by taking a test or otherwise". Those words were, I should stress, included after careful consideration. I believe that we must have the flexibility to deal with changed circumstances. Experience shows that it is not often that parliamentary time can be found to legislate for taxis and minicabs, and we are sadly aware of taxi and private hire vehicle provisions on the statute book that have not stood the test of time.

I believe that no apology is required for a flexible approach to the drafting of this Bill, but I can confirm that the Secretary of State will be applying the provisions of clause 13(3). New applicants for a minicab driver's licence will be required to show, by passing a test,

that they possess an appropriate level of knowledge of London and of general topographical skills. It would not be sensible for me to go into the detail of the precise nature of the test, as that must be for the Public Carriage Office not only to consider but to consult upon. There may well also be transitional arrangements—grandfather rights, in the jargon—for minicab drivers who can show that they have worked consistently in the trade for some appropriate period before the legislation comes into force. I stress that no driver will be exempt from a criminal record check. Nevertheless, the principle of application of clause 13(3) is clear.

I am also aware that there are anomalies or weaknesses in current law on taxis and private hire vehicles, not only for London but for elsewhere, and realise that legislative overhaul is long overdue. The House will realise that I can make no promises on when parliamentary time will be available. I assure the House, however, that the need for change is understood by the Government.

Many hon. Members have expressed concerns about whether the Public Carriage Office will have the necessary resources should the Bill be enacted. It is well recognised that the PCO will require more resources to perform minicab regulation effectively. The PCO will be ensuring that those resources are provided, and it has already started to review its requirement for extra staff and equipment. As the House will be aware, the PCO is the responsibility of the Metropolitan police. As I have already told the House, although I take a very close interest in the work of the PCO, the Metropolitan police are happy that responsibility for it should rest with them should the Bill become statute.

The principle is that licensing costs will be met by the minicab trade from licence fees. I reiterate that there is no suggestion that the taxi trade should pay for minicab licensing. Like many Labour Members, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) mentioned the problem for taxi drivers of delays in taking the famous knowledge test. The issue was also mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that issue, concerning taxis, is separate from the issue of minicab regulation, which is a public safety issue. I confirm, however, that the Public Carriage Office is taking action to speed up knowledge testing, and I will ensure that its attention is drawn to today's debate.

The Public Carriage Office has recruited extra knowledge examiners, and the interval between tests has already been reduced. The PCO envisages recruiting more knowledge examining staff over and above the latest increase. It has also made changes in the system of knowledge testing, with initial written tests rather than a personal appearance. We hope that that change—with the new point system reflecting how well candidates perform at personal appearances—will reduce the load on knowledge examiners.

Hon. Members have mentioned the possibility of legislation enabling the Public Carriage Office to charge taxi and minicab applicants for sitting tests rather than to charge a fee only when the licence is issued. The effect of the current system is to place the cost of dealing with applications when a licence is not granted on those to whom a licence is granted. The Bill contains such a provision, in clause 20.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham particularly made the point that legislative overhaul of the law on taxis and private hire vehicles—not only in London but elsewhere—is long overdue. I repeat that I can make no promises of when parliamentary time will be available, but the need for change is well understood by the Government.

I trust that I have been able to assure hon. Members on their concerns. Like hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I believe that the Bill is long overdue.

It would be entirely improper of me not to mention perhaps one of this debate's most important speeches, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham. He brought not only direct personal experience of being a black cab driver but a family history of driving black cabs. It was a genuine privilege to be the beneficiaries—as hon. Members were—of his wealth of detailed knowledge. His argument for the Bill's reaching the statute book was probably as cogent and convincing as any that could be made. His knowledge of what is necessary to ensure the safety of passengers is consummate, and I am grateful to him. I am sure that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire is also grateful that someone with such experience should so warmly endorse the Bill.

The arguments offered today by hon. Members of all parties underlined time and again the fact that the Bill is important for public safety, that it has been overlong in arriving, and that we are grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire for introducing it. Should it find its way on to the statute book, not only the people of London but those who visit our great capital city will have cause to be grateful to him. I strongly hope that the House will ensure that it receives a Second Reading.

1.30 pm
Sir George Young

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has wound up the debate, so I shall not seek to do so, but I wish to make three brief points. First, I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate for supporting the Bill.

The proposition before the House is that the Bill should have a Second Reading. There has been no serious dissent from that principle, so I hope that it may have an unopposed Second Reading.

Secondly, several hon. Members pointed out where they thought the Bill might be improved. There was particular focus on the word "shall" rather than "may", but points were also made about taxi meters and advertisements. I will reflect on those points, hold discussions with appropriate parties, and see whether the Bill might be improved, probably in another place rather than here.

Thirdly, I must mention the speech by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford). It was an interesting speech, in which he brought to bear on the Bill his extensive knowledge of the taxi industry. He has a vision of a unified industry with common standards for minicabs and taxis.

If that is where we end up, my Bill is an important first step. It will bring minicabs within the legislative framework; it will provide that the PCO shall deal with minicabs and taxis; and it will provide for a knowledge test. Indirectly, it will reduce the difference between black cab and minicab drivers' tariffs, for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), in that we will knock out the irresponsible minority who can under-price because they are not playing the game.

Wherever we are going, the Bill is a first step on that path. Against that background, I hope that it may now proceed on its way.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills), That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Sir George Young.]

Question agreed to.

Committee on Friday 6 February.

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