HL Deb 07 May 1975 vol 360 cc440-8

9.42 p.m.

The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (The Earl of Listowel)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Listowel.)

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Baroness VICKERS moved Amendment No. 1: After Clause 28, insert the following new clause:

Information as to scale or basis of charge

"(1) The operator of a private hire vehicle which is licensed by the Council under this Act shall keep prominently displayed at all places in the city at which he invites or accepts bookings information as to the scale or basis of the charge for the hire of the vehicle and shall ensure that such information is made available to any person booking the vehicle.

(2) If any person knowingly contravenes the provisions of this section he shall be guilty of an offence."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, first may I express my gratitude to the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees for kindly agreeing that this debate should be held tonight. After the great debate to which we have just listened this may appear to be rather an anti-climax, but it is very important to the City of Plymouth. I understand, my Lords, that you may be adding to history tonight for allowing this debate, as there has not been one on these lines since 10th July 1900, 75 years ago.

My reason for being anxious to have this Amendment accepted is because of the rather special circumstances appertaining to Plymouth. This city is in the unique position of being a busy commercial and holiday centre and a focal point for military activities. Furthermore, many small railway stations near Plymouth have been closed, and therefore distances for licensed taxi carriages have been greatly extended. The many small firms which have been established—I regret to say almost overnight, especially in the dockyards area—make no attempt to keep within the law. The main purpose of the Bill is to give the city council some control over the large number of private hire vehicles which operate in the city and which are believed to exceed 400 in number. These vehicles carry fewer than eight passengers for hire or reward, with the services of a driver provided. There has been a very rapid growth in the number of these vehicles and, apart from the provisions of the law with which the ordinary motorist is obliged to comply, they are not subject to very strict statutory restrictions. In fact I have been informed by the city solicitor that periodically reports are submitted to his office by the police that in many cases they have no MOT certificates or insurance certificates.

There have been many complaints to the council from persons hiring the vehicles of their failure to honour bookings and about fare charges, and complaints by taxi drivers which in my opinion have some justification because of the unfair competition, since the taxi drivers are subject to statutory control. The control of taxis and their drivers, as I am sure your Lordships will know, is contained in the Town Police Clauses Act, 1847, which, by the incorporation of the Public Health Act of 1875, applies to urban areas such as Plymouth. As your Lordships will realise, these Statutes are quite outdated as they really applied to horsedrawn vehicles. This has been recognised in another place by the Government and on 14th April 1975, column 25, in reply to a question Dr. Summerskill answered Mr. Ron Lewis who asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he now intended to introduce legislation to bring up to date the law in relation to taxi carriages and to control the activities of private hire operators, and when the promised consultation paper on this matter would be issued for the local authority associations. The answer was: I accept that there is demand for legislation on this subject and we are in process —I make that remark because it does not seem to have got very far— of preparing draft proposals. I cannot at present say when we shall be in a position to circulate the consultation paper to the local authorities association and other interested bodies. That does not seem to hold out a very great deal of hope.

The Bill also has some provisions to bring the control of taxis up to date. It seems to me to be odd when, in the Liverpool Corporation Act of 1972 in Clause 28, we have a similar clause to the one that we wish to have in our Bill where it says: No operator of a private hire vehicle which is licensed by the Corporation under this Act shall invite or accept a booking for such vehicle, or control or arrange a journey to be undertaken by such vehicle, without first making available in writing, or giving orally, to the person making the booking information as to the basis of the charge for the hire of the vehicle.

This is what we are asking for. The Lord Chairman in his wisdom did not think the word "orally" was a sufficient safeguard. But it is already in previous legislation. I should also like to quote from the Maxwell Stamp Committee, page 81, paragraph 7.4 which reads: It is clear, however, that it is desirable that any potential user of a private hire car should be able to know precisely —and this is what we are asking for— the basis of charging, before or at the time he books the vehicle, and moreover, that he should be able to find out the method easily and without lengthy questioning, and that the method should be easily comprehensible. Our researches have shown that these conditions are currently by no means universally satisfied. We therefore recommend that each operator should be compelled to declare his basis of charging in his advertising literature and that it should be freely and fully available in writing to passengers and enquirers. This is supported by another remark in that document on page 131, paragraph 69: However, each private car operator should be required to declare in his advertising literature his basis of charging, which should be freely and fully available in writing to passengers or enquirers.

Nothing can be clearer than this Report. I gather that the Bill has been considered with great care by the Home Office and the Lord Chairman of the Council—and I thank them for some improvements to the Bill—but, unfortunately, the Committee struck out two clauses, Clauses 29 and 30, in the original Bill, and in my opinion they made an unfortunate change in Clause 6. The report of the Home Office on this Bill says: It provides for licensing of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles and their drivers and the Secretary of State sees no objection in principle to these provisions.

This included the two clauses which have now been eliminated, Clauses 29 and 30. I understand that Clause 29 was considered defective by the Unopposed Bill Committee, because it was stated it would be difficult to prove that all the information had not been given. This is very odd, considering it had been agreed for the Liverpool Corporation Bill in Clause 28. It stated there, in regard to the charges: … without first making available in writing, or given orally… That is all we were asking for and it has now been cut out. Why should it be considered satisfactory for Liverpool and not workable in Plymouth?

So I submit this Amendment. What is now proposed is that a scale or basis of charging should be displayed where bookings are taken, that information should be available and should be available to the person booking the vehicle. It could be done either orally or by providing a leaflet in the vehicle. It does not necessarily have to be given at the time of booking. You just ring up and book and there is no time to discuss the full details. But there should be something that the hirer could have on demand, so that if there were excessive charges he could have a right of appeal. If necessary a hirer can take the driver to court. It would give the opportunity to check if someone felt he was being overcharged. Furthermore, people would be given far more security when they hired a car.

I speak from personal knowledge, having had many complaints over the years when I represented Devonport and I, too, have been charged many times completely different rates for the same journey. All I want to do is protect not only the local residents but the holiday visitors, especially the many men and women of Her Majesty's Services, many of whom are very young indeed, when they come for their training at the naval establishment at Torpoint. I hope it will be agreed that the word "Content" can be given in regard to my Amendment. I beg to move.

9.25 p.m.


My Lords, I think I should respond briefly to a couple of matters in regard to which the noble Baroness mentioned in particular the Government Department involved. She said, I thought in slightly uncharitable terms, that the Department had plans for the future, but they were of such a vague nature they were not to be taken into consideration at all. That seemed to be the implication of what she was saying. The Government hope to circulate the consultation papers fairly soon. Where the only major area of uncertainty arises is in that no Government Department can be certain when Parliamentary time will be available for the introduction of legislation of this sort. While the Government Department concerned may approve of this Bill in principle, it would be unfair to say they approved of every clause in detail. I do not think it would be fair for the noble Baroness to pray in aid Government support for the particular clause she is moving in this Amendment.

9.53 p.m.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I should like to say two things about this Amendment, one with pleasure and one with regret. The first is to welcome very warmly the interest which the noble Baroness has shown in this Bill promoted by Plymouth City Council. As the House will know, she represented the Devonport division of Plymouth for a very long time, from 1955 until she came to this House, and she brings with her long experience and great knowledge of local problems and conditions. I can assure the noble Baroness that the House will always listen with interest and respect to anything she may have to say about the affairs of Plymouth.

The second thing, which I say with much regret, is that I cannot recommend the House to accept the Amendment of the noble Baroness. There are two main reasons why this Amendment is unacceptable. The first is procedural, and I am sorry to have to labour this point but it is of some importance. This Amendment raises a principle of considerable importance to the conduct of the business of the House. The procedure of both Houses of Parliament is designed to relieve the House as a whole of the necessity of hearing argument and evidence about the merits of the detailed provisions of a Private Bill. For some centuries this responsibility has been delegated to Committees and, were it assumed by the House, it would constitute a fundamental and, as I am sure your Lordships will agree, a very time-consuming change in accepted procedure, which, even if it were made, would not enable the House to discharge its responsibility, because of course the Promoters of Private Bills cannot appear, evidence from witnesses cannot be heard, and barristers cannot appear on the Floor of the House.

From this premise stems the main objection to the Amendment of the noble Baroness. Its purpose, as I understand it, is essentially to restore with arguable improvements—which the noble Baroness has argued with great skill—the effect of Clause 29 which was in the Bill when it was deposited, and subsequently disallowed by the Unopposed Bills Committee after hearing argument and evidence from the Promoters. It is contrary to the normal practice of the House for Amendments of substance to be moved on Third Reading of a Private Bill, whether or not to nullify Amendments made in Committee. The usual procedure in relation to Third Reading Amendments, which are normally drafting or consequential Amendments, is set out at page 160—I will not weary your Lordships by quoting from it—of the Companion to our Standing Orders. From what I have just said, the House will appreciate the procedural ground on which I am reluctant to recommend acceptance of the noble Baroness's Amendment.

But I am afraid I am no less unhappy about the substance of the Amendment, and this is my second ground for objection. The Bill, as deposited, required an operator of a private hire vehicle to make available to his client information as to the scale or basis of the hire charge, whether asked for or not. The new clause proposed in the Amendment goes further, and requires the operator of the service to keep prominently displayed at all places in the city at which he invites of accepts bookings, information as to his charges, and also to ensure that such information is made available to any person booking the vehicle.

In my view, this imposes on operators of hire cars an obligation that goes beyond what was required in the original clause when the Bill was deposited for public inspection and general information. Such a provision, which places increased obligations on a class of persons affected by the Bill, would normally be open to Petitions of Objection. It is too late, of course, at this stage of the Bill to admit such Petitions and, therefore, these persons, if this Amendment was agreed to, would have no opportunity to petition against the Bill. The new clause would also impose an obligation on a private hire vehicle operator to display charges at all places where he makes bookings, and might therefore include places such as the premises of the local tourist office, over which he, the operator, would have no control.

But I have a good deal of sympathy with the noble Baroness's contention—I am not sure whether it was made explicitly tonight, but I am sure it is a contention that is in her mind—that the public interest requires a reasonable degree of control over the operators of private hire vehicles. In consequence of the 1972 Local Government Act, it should be a duty of the central Government to enact, by way of public legislation, those provisions in private Acts which are generally desirable for the country as a whole. I am sure that the control of private hire vehicles is a problem common to a large number of local authorities and, indeed, I have come across it already in more than one of the Private Bills that have come before me this Session. Therefore, this is a matter that should be dealt with by the general law. I was glad to hear from the noble Lord who has just spoken that it is at any rate present in the mind of the Government. The provisions in this Bill relating to hackney carriages and private hire vehicles should be the subject of public legislation at the earliest opportunity, so that the law relating to the operation of these services may be the same for all parts of the country. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for having drawn attention to the need for a change of this nature in the general law.

9.59 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for, so to speak, "softening the blow", but it is unfortunate from my point of view that the Amendment has been turned down on two different grounds—procedural and substance—and, of course, with that kind of clause we could not submit the same clause again, as the noble Earl will know. But I suppose it may be of some use in the future to other Corporations who are to produce Bills, and if you can get action, as was mentioned just now, which is generic to all local authorities, this would also save the time of Parliament and save your Lordships a few headaches, perhaps, in having to make decisions.

I should like to make one further point. It seems to be a very difficult procedure to have to undertake. A Bill such as this, concerning a city council, comes before the House unopposed, and a city is obviously not going to present a Bill and then want somebody to oppose it. So then it goes to the Committee on Unopposed Bills. I do not wish to be ungracious or rude to the noble Earl, but there is only one person on the Committee. This seems to me a very difficult job for the one person on the Committee. He has his advisers and there is no chance in Committee to take a vote on different points, the one person, regrettably, having to decide. I presume that his advisers think one way or the other and try to persuade him, rightly or wrongly. He does not have to take their advice but he takes their opinion.

I should like to put on record—it is perhaps rather bumptious of me to do so, as I am a fairly new Member of the House—that this is not perhaps a very satisfactory way of dealing with some of these Bills. I therefore regret that I am not going to get the word "Content"; and I will now ask for leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(The Earl of Listowel.)

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.