HL Deb 17 April 1973 vol 341 cc1040-50

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. For some years past there has been great anxiety in the cab trade and, indeed, among users of taxicabs in Greater London, such as the London Tourist Board, about the effect of unfair competition against taxis from so-called mini-cabs. In London, as your Lordships are no doubt aware, the licensed taxis, of which there are about 10,000, carrying, I am informed, something like 210 million passengers a year, are subject to the most stringent regulations and, in some ways, rather irksome controls by the Public Carriage Office, which is an arm of the Assistant Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, but in return they have the sole right to ply for hire throughout the whole of London. On the other hand, the private hire cars are bound only to observe the general law and are otherwise subject to no restrictions whatsoever, with the sole exception that they must not ply for hire; and if they do so they are committing an offence under the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869.

It is within the experience of most people who have spent any time at all in Greater London that the so-called minicabs pick up passengers without prior arrangement, and that in doing so they are breaking the law regularly and with impunity. The people who do this are undermining the legitimate business of taxi drivers although it has proved extremely difficult to secure convictions in the courts of law. With this background in mind, it was decided under the last Administration in 1968 to tackle the problem by prohibiting certain kinds of display on private hire-cars which might lead members of the public to believe, incorrectly, that they were available for hire on the spot. Unfortunately, this legislation has proved to be ineffective, because the "pirates", as we call them and as they are termed by the Home Office, the people who illegally ply for hire, have simply varied the wording of the signs which they display on their vehicles in order to conform with the 1968 Act, while continuing to give the impression that the drivers of those vehicles can accept immediate bookings.

I do not often quote myself, but I said on the Report stage of the London Cab Bill in 1968 in another place that if the display of a neon sign could be taken as an invitation to hire a vehicle on which it was displayed, then the only safe course of action would be to prohibit neon signs altogether. It was not possible, I pointed out. to single out the use of certain words which were to be displayed on these private hire-cars, such as "Taxi" or "Cab", and prohibit those, because sharp operators would ingeniously think up similar terms implying just as strongly that these private hire-cars could be enlisted on the spot to take a passenger to his destination. So we have these loopholes which would never have existed if the Government had listened to us five years ago, but which are now being stopped up, thanks to the initiative of the honourable Member for Hampstead, who introduced the present Bill in another place with the full co-operation and backing of the Home Office. I must also pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who has sympathetically listened to the representatives of the taxi trade in the last few months, and who has at the same time entered into full consultation with representatives of the private hire-car trade who are, I must emphasise, in full support of this Bill which is now being considered.

What we are trying to do in this Bill is not only to stop up the loopholes to which I have referred but to take the opportunity of increasing the maximum fines which the courts may impose for contravention of Section 4 of the 1968 Act, as it will be amended by this Bill, so as to take account of changes in the value of money which have occurred since 1968 and allow the courts greater discretion to deal with the very blatant cases which have come to the knowledge of the police in the last few years. Clause 1 of the Bill deals with these increased fines and, I hope, will be self-explanatory to your Lordships. Clause 2 is the heart of the Bill, which gives the Secretary of State wide powers to make orders prohibiting the display, … on or from private hire-cars … of any sign, notice, mark illumination or other feature of a description specified in the order. In another place, it was asked why the prohibitions which are to be contained in the order, or orders, could not have been spelled out in the Bill itself. I suggest that that is the very trap into which we fell in 1968 and, however comprehensive the wording might appear to your Lordships at first sight, the House could not be certain that "fly" operators would not find a way round it. I believe, therefore, that this approach is to be preferred, since if there were any loopholes in the drafting of the first order, they could be stopped up without the need for additional legislation. The only point on which some representatives of the trade may have had reservations was the length of time which, in theory, could elapse between the Royal Assent to this Bill and the order made by the Secretary of State. I think that sufficient guarantees have been given by Ministers in another place, and repeated in correspondence with the interests concerned, to satisfy entirely the representatives of the taxi trade. Undertakings have also been given that consultations, which are provided for in subsection (4) of Clause 2, can begin straight away. Perhaps the noble Viscount can say something about these consultations during the course of his remarks this afternoon.

There are only two further points which I should like to ask your Lordships to consider. The penalties for illegal display of signs, which are provided for in this Bill, will be grossly out of line with those that are laid down for illegal plying for hire under Section 92 and Schedule 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967. Those earlier penalties are £20 for a first offence and £50 for a second and subsequent offence; the same as the penalties that were provided in the 1968 Act, but very small in relation to the ones that are being written into this Bill. This might not matter if the London Cab Act 1968, as it is now proposed to amend it, were regarded as a universal substitute for the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869, which originally created the offence of plying for hire. But with all its defects and difficulties, the police still use the latter Act. I am told that in 1971 they issued 17 summonses under it, compared with 12 under the 1968 Act. I therefore suggest to the Government that they should take an early opportunity to bring these penalties into line. Of course, they cannot do so on this occasion because of the limitations of the Long Title.

Secondly, if we agree to exclude virtually all signs, of any nature, which could lead members of the public to think that a vehicle is available for hire on the spot, there is a danger that the "fly" operators, as I have called them, will seek other methods—and in another place the honourable Member for the Isle of Wight mentioned one of them; that is, the employment of touts, which is now unfortunately becoming very prevalent in the West End. I hope the Home Office will give urgent attention to that matter. As your Lordships will be aware, these and other problems have been recognised by the Maxwell Stamp Committee, which reported as long ago as October, 1970. Unfortunately we move very slowly in this field, as can be seen by the number of nineteenth century Acts which we still have on the Statute Book. The taxi drivers and the proprietors are very glad to see that Parliament is taking a small step forward in this Bill, but they have left me with the strong impression, which I should like to convey to your Lordships, that they will not tolerate any delay of several years before more fundamental reforms are introduced. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Avebury.)

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House will want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for the manner in which he has introduced his Bill to this House. He has done so with his usual thoroughness, and has left us with very little to say unless we happen to be opponents of the Bill—and I do not happen to be one of those. I understand that there is some urgency about the Bill, and that it is wanted on the Statute Book as soon as possible. For our part, we shall do nothing to prevent that happening. There is no doubt at all that when we passed the London Cab Act 1968 we thought it was reasonably fool and crook proof. Subsequent events have shown that that was not the case, and that has caused this Bill to be presented to us to-day through the Private Member Bill procedure, although I gather that it is very much a Government Bill. In the circumstances, I do not think it is any the worse for that. What we sought to do in 1968 was to give the London taxi trade a fair deal, without at the same time injuring the legitimate private hire operators—and this we certainly did not wish to do. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has told us, the 1968 Act failed particularly in respect of the display of signs, as the so-called "pirate" soon discovered and exploited to the full.

I certainly welcome the change in the penalty clause and support the figure of the fine, which has been changed to a maximum of £200. This goes far beyond the change in the value of money, although under this Government, of course, it has dropped enormously. But apart from that this alteration will be doing something more than take account of that change, and I hope will be a deterrent to those who seek to drive a coach and horses through even this new Act which we are now placing on the Statute Book, and indeed the Statutory Instruments that will flow from it.

My Lords, I must admit that I tend to dislike leaving important prohibitions to Ministerial Orders, but I am bound to say that in the light of events I support Clause 2 of the Bill which is now before us. It is an enabling clause which will ensure that the Secretary of State will be able to deal with any further abuses which come to light without having to come to Parliament either for a new Act or to pass a Statutory Instrument under the Affirmative Resolution Procedure. I think in the circumstances this is worth while. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, certainly justified this part of the Bill, and for our part, as I said at the outset, we shall do nothing to prevent this Bill having a quick and, I hope, a happy passage through this House.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord. Lord Avebury, was good enough to refer to the London Tourist Board and to its connection with the taxi trade. As I have been president for ten years, perhaps I may be permitted to say a few words in support of this Bill, which though a small measure seeks to remedy a long-standing grievance. I am shortly retiring from office and I have been, so to speak, clearing out my desk. I noticed with interest how very few complaints there have been against the London taxi—remarkably few. Such as there have been can be divided into two classes. The first are those complaints which really when analysed are not complaints against the taxi at all but complaints against the pirate—the pirate to whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, refers and the existence of whom justifies him in bringing this measure forward. The other source of complaint has of course been the scandal at London Airport, which has been put right largely by the initiative of the London taxi drivers themselves who did not wish to see their good name and their good will ruined by a few ruffians.

As both noble Lords have said, this is a complex situation. Why the London taxi should be so involved in such complex law is a matter of history, but there it is. Here, for instance, we have a Bill concerning taxis in which the word "taxi" does not appear once. We are lucky, I suppose, that the Bill does not go back and refer to "hackney carriages", which it would be perfectly well entitled to do because the Hackney Carriage Act of 1831 is still on the Statute Book. The term itself goes back to 1605 and is still used by the police in the administration of the stringent regulations to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred. The result, however, of those regulations has been that our 10,000 taxicabs in London and our 14,000 drivers together make up the most efficient taxi service in the world. That is what our visiting tourists say and I am sure they are right. Whether we ourselves say it quite so enthusiastically on a rainy winter's night, waiting outside the House of Lords after a long debate on a Committee stage, is a different matter, but that is certainly what the tourists say.

I hope further efforts will be made to simplify and codify the laws applying to London's taxis, which we have debated many times in this House. There is much improvement still to be made from the point of view of the user and for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has given in the clear explanation of his Bill. There are also one or two taxi drivers who occasionally cash in on our ignorance of the law to do things which they know perfectly well they should not do. Your Lordships get out of a train and carry a heavy suitcase to the first taxi available. You will be told to go to the head of the queue. The taxi driver knows perfectly well he has no right to tell you to do that. You can perfectly well by law get into his cab. If he protests you yourself can then insist that he drives you to your destination at under five miles an hour. The taxi meter will then work down to a lower rate and you will pay half the fare. I would not recommend that you do it too often because taxi drivers have a good intelligence service and they will remember you. But, on the whole, they provide an excellent, courteous and efficient service, and I think we should support this Bill in an attempt to help them provide an even better service.

There is of course another side to the coin. A few days ago we received at the London Tourist Board a letter from an elderly American visitor who had taken a taxi off the boat train at Waterloo and had asked to be driven to an address in Edgware Road. She then asked the taxi driver whether he would mind carrying two heavy suitcases up a fairly long staircase. He agreed willingly and did it. She then paid him with a £5 note but he had not sufficient change. He gave her such change as he could spare and said he would be back the next morning with the rest. She doubted this, but the next morning the bell rang and the taxi driver was there at the bottom of the stairs, not with the change but with a large bunch of roses. He said, "Madam, here is your change". Whether he had included the tip in the value of the roses is not certain, but we must give him the benefit of the doubt, I think we must also give the London taxi driver, who provides on the whole an admirable service, the benefit of this Bill.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Mancroft has paid a well deserved tribute to the London taxi drivers because from what I know of them, having had day-to-day acquaintance with this matter now for nearly a year, I readily agree with everything he said which is complimentary to them. They have a just complaint on this and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is in the happy position of being able to say—although he did not do it—"I told you so", and we now have an opportunity to put this right.

The background has been very fully spelled out by all those who have spoken before me and all I need to do is to make a few comments on what has been said. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, agreed that in this case it is right to work by way of Order. We considered this carefully at the Home Office and tried in the consultations to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already referred to find a number of different ways of doing it, but I think there is no doubt that the only way of achieving the necessary flexibility in order to plug up the various holes that are made in the law by the unscrupulous is to have this completely flexible procedure. As to the timing of the Orders that will follow the first Order in this Bill, I want it to be very quick, and the trade has in fact been told that we are ready to enter into consultation soon after Easter. This is only a continuation of the consultations we have already had with the taxi side and the private hire side, both of whom I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, we must have behind us in all our dealings in this matter. Incidentally, I much prefer to do this sort of thing by way of consultation and with the agreement of all concerned, and am glad that he has agreed that this has been the case.

My noble friend Lord Mancroft said that the law needs simplifying and codifying in general. He is quite right in that and I am fully aware of the fact that this is so, not only in London but in the Provinces as well. It is a long and peculiarly difficult job but it is one we are in the course of undertaking, and in the meantime Bills like this I am afraid are necessary in order to deal with urgent matters. My noble friend mentioned London Airport. Certainly the taxi trade did a great deal to assist here but the Home Office were also prepared with the British Airport Authority to bring in the necessary Order and by-law to enable them to do what they themselves wanted to do. This is something else we have been successful in doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about plying for hire. Probably the main defence in practice of the law as it stands at the moment ought to be Section 4 of the 1968 Act, as now amended. It may very well be that the police have had to fall back on the mid-Victorian legislation, but it is notoriously difficult because of the definition of, "plying for hire". It is true that the penalties were raised in 1967, as the noble Lord said, but the penalties we now have under Section 4 are substantially bigger and we trust that, although the particular offence under this Bill will be narrower to some extent than the technicalities of plying for hire, this will really be the way to get at the powers. I hope we shall succeed in doing it even if it is in a slightly devious manner.

The noble Lord also asked about touting. This can be dealt with in a number of different ways. It is true it was raised in another place by my honourable friend the Member for the Isle of Wight. On railway property and airports the by-laws deal with the situation and in London it is an offence under the Metropolitan Public Carriages Act 1869. In the Provinces it can be an offence under the Town and Police Causes Act 1847, but in the Provinces the application of this Act, of local legislation and by-laws and so on is extremely patchy and it is very difficult to give any general picture. We are not wholly without defences against this touting, certainly not in London. I think this Bill deserves your Lordships' approbation, which it has had; it is urgently needed and we shall get on the moment it is on the Statute Book. We might even do a little intelligent anticipation as I suggested, and I commend it to the House. I thank the noble Lord very much for introducing it and bringing it forward here, and my honourable friend the Member for Hampstead for dealing with it in another place. The sooner it is on the Statute Book the happier the Home Office will be and I believe also those concerned with all forms of the legitimate taxi trade and private hire in London.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, as an honourable Member said in another place, all is sweetness and light. It is an unusual experience for us to find a Bill so universally agreed to by Members in all parts of the House, this time just as in another place. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, for what he said about the careful thought he gave to the Order-making power and his preference for this solution rather than trying to write anything specific into the Bill. I think, in the light of our experience in the 1968 Act, that this is the right thing to do. Also the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, has convinced those who are acting on behalf of the taxi trade that he is going to bring this Order forward as a matter of urgency, and if he finds it does not work in the light of experience he will be equally prepared to amend it afterwards. What he has said this afternoon will go an enormous way to reassure those who had their doubts on this that he is prepared to enter into consultation even before the Bill has reached the Statute Book—without commitment, of course. Nevertheless he is prepared to start looking at a draft order with the representatives of the taxi trade and the private car hire interests so that very soon after this Bill is given the Royal Assent an Order can be put through both Houses of Parliament.

I am also very grateful to the noble Viscount for the remarks he made about the future legislation which may be contemplated by the Government. One realises that this is a matter of some difficulty and in particular one has to think about the effect of any legislation on the Provinces as well as Greater London. This is the reason why faster progress has not been made on the recommendations of the Maxwell Stamp Committee. Nevertheless, it is reassuring for us to hear that it is very much in the mind of the Home Office and that they are pursuing it with a view to introducing comprehensive legislation as soon as they possibly can.

May I also thank most warmly the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for his remarks which were extremely telling, coming as they did from someone who has such long experience of the tourist industry and particularly in his capacity as President of the London Tourist Board. I was struck, as your Lordships also must have been, by his assertion that we have the most efficient taxi service in the world. This is not simply his view but that of the tourists who write in large numbers, I suppose, explaining to the London Tourist Board their experience with our taxis and how the service compares with that in other places such as Paris or any other big capital in Europe or the developed world. I do not have enormous experience of taxis abroad but such as I have had has not been an unmixed pleasure; but when one travels in a taxi in London one is absolutely confident that the driver knows where he is going because of his knowledge, that he is going to be honest, that he is going to do everything he possibly can to help you, and that he is going to be friendly and an agreeable companion for the length of the journey. I like London taxi drivers; I think they are splendid people. They do a magnificent job and I believe that your Lordships will earn their gratitude by passing this Bill this afternoon.

On Question, Bill read 2aand committed to a Committee of the Whole House.