HL Deb 13 February 1990 vol 515 cc1322-44

7.41 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

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

I understand from the speakers whose names appear on the speakers' list today that the controversial element in this Bill is Clause 4. I understand that almost every speaker will be speaking to this clause, so I shall restrict my remarks to that. As your Lordships know, the Second Reading of this Bill was on 15th February 1989, so that is almost a year ago. The controversial element is about the licensing of private hire vehicles and the effect that this might have on the London black cabs.

The taxis, or black cabs as we know them, are famous throughout the world. They are controlled by the Home Office in London. But there is no control whatsoever over private hire vehicles. The public always call them minicabs no matter what we call them technically. This Bill seeks to provide control over minicabs or private hire vehicles. Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 all vehicles must be licensed for hire. London was excluded and nothing was implemented in the London area.

I think we all recognise the unique role of the London taxi. This Bill proposes no changes whatsoever for the black cab. But it is clearly in the public interest to have some control over private hire vehicles. As a magistrate, I often hear cases where minicabs are involved in accidents. They have no insurance; the vehicles are unsafe and sometimes the driver has no driving licence. All too often he has a criminal conviction and is frequently driving as a minicab driver in order to earn money to pay off a court fine in connection with criminal activities.

Disabled people have advantage taken of them by unscrupulous drivers who overcharge them. I have heard that comment made in this House. RADAR originally had a degree of concern about the supposed threat to the black cab, but on the whole it is now thought that it would be to its advantage to have the minicabs licensed. There would be then more reliable drivers and they would also be identifiable.

There seems to be no pricing system at all. There is a dangerous criminal element such as was shown in a television programme last Friday. It was shown that there were drivers with no legitimate standard at all who posed as drivers in order to drive off women. Rape cases were reported on television. The black cab representatives who have discussed the matter with me are concerned that controls would be ineffective, unenforceable or not enforced.

That may be true, but in my view any control, however inadequate or poorly enforced, can be no worse than the present system of no control. It is estimated that there are about 40,000 private hire vehicles operating in London. Clearly, there is a need for them because if that need did not exist they would not be in business. The new licensing burden will be quite an added responsibility for local authorities, but it is necessary.

Women in particular are a section of the community quite dependent on private hire vehicles to enable them to go out at night. It should be possible for them to go out safely at night in such vehicles. The "London Programme" shown on television last Friday, to which I have already referred, was instructive and disturbing. It made the case for control more vividly than I can tonight. There were serious and alarming interviews with women who had been raped. There was another interview which I found lighter because I thought that the man, the subject of the interview, was probably not as bad as he made out. However, the interview showed how bad the situation can be.

The man concerned was a cowboy operator who had what appeared to be a car radio, in order, he said, to make people feel more confident. His radio was not connected. He explained that he spoke into it occasionally to make people feel that he was part of a bigger organisation. If a passenger remarked on the lack of a reply, the driver said that he must be out of radio range.

I was impressed by a number of points made by the black cab representatives and I consider it important that local authorities should bear these in mind when they are considering matters of licensing. First, if meters are allowed in private hire vehicles there must be a maximum rate at which they can be set. It would be very wrong to have a meter charging six times as much as a black cab, a meter which appeared to be perfectly legitimate and yet it was really exploiting the unwary passenger.

I understand that at the moment this Bill will not give powers to implement such control over the meter. That may be a further stage to come. It may be that at this stage the local authorities would not allow meters because of the lack of control over them. That is an interesting point to be considered.

The second point is that vehicles must be subject to regular testing to standards above those for private vehicles. I am informed that the average minicab in London covers about 50,000 miles a year compared to a family car which travels about 15,000 miles a year. Thirdly, there must be no possibility of confusion between the hackney carriage driver and the private hire vehicle driver. Neither should the vehicles be the same; nor should there be any possibility of confusion.

The fourth point is that some thought must be given to the fitness of the driver. I do not know what restrictions apply to black cab drivers, but I believe that anyone driving other people should be subject to regular medical and eye tests. The hire car drivers fulfil a need in London. There would not be 40,000 of these vehicles in use if there was no need for them. How often have noble Lords or friends been told by a black cab driver that he does not go south of the river. I have been checking this out with everyone whom I have met in the past week. I have received that answer from pretty well everyone. Another answer is that the driver is on his way home and can only take a passenger if he is going in that direction.

For some reason all black cab drivers seem to live either in North or East London. The 1847 Act obliges a black cab to take a fare anywhere up to six miles from Charing Cross. That was as far as a horse could comfortably travel; that is where the six miles came from. Under the law a taxi should carry a bale of hay for the horse. That is not done any more, and neither are you taken unquestioningly the six miles in any direction from Charing Cross.

But the most difficult thing to value is The Knowledge —that is the official name —by which London cabbies have an intimate awareness of London, a knowledge of its streets and of the quickest and best ways to get to any destination. The black cab and its driver are unsurpassed anywhere in the world. They must remain clearly identifiable as most people prefer to use a black cab to any private hire vehicle, particularly if the passenger wishes to be sure of reaching the destination and if it is a difficult one.

I have heard from taxi drivers that they face the threat of extinction. I do not accept this. I spent some time last week with a representative of the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association and on the following day I spent a similar amount of time with a minicab proprietor. When I put this point to him he gave me an interesting reply. He said: A lot of my drivers have been able to get the "knowledge" while they have been driving for me and they have gone on to become black cab drivers. I have never had a black cab driver wanting to come back to work for me. It must be better to be a taxi driver". It must, my Lords. We wish to maintain and increase the number of black cabs and to see that they are not subject to unfair competition. But they are now subject to unfair competition. This Bill will help to control the situation and will be of benefit to the public. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time. —(Baroness Gardner of Parkes.)

7.52 p.m.

The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, I am most encouraged by some of the remarks and sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. However, I have serious doubts and reservations concerning Clause 4 of the Bill. The promoters wish to use its proposals regarding the licensing of private hire vehicles to implement the adoption of Part II of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 in London in line with the rest of England and Wales. But they fail to appreciate that, as concerns the licensing of private hire vehicles and hackney carriages, London is unique and cannot be lumped together with the provinces.

When the 1976 Act became law, Part II did not apply to London. In my opinion, nothing has changed since then to justify the changes which are now proposed. Indeed, I should like to quote a reply of the noble Viscount, Lord Davidson, to a Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, on 7th June 1989. He said: My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that the statement by my honourable friend the Minister for Public Transport says that it is too early to propose new legislation, so no new legislation is proposed. As regards the London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill, although technically neutral on private Bills, the department's Ministers have indicated that they do not welcome the proposals because the Bill would make each borough an independent licensing authority. Different approaches to licensing would cause confusion as so many journeys cross borough boundaries. I am told that the Bill is in some difficulty. As I have already indicated, although the Government are either benevolently or malevolently neutral on private Bills, on this occasion it is malevolently neutral". —[Official Report, 7/6/89; col. 852.] The central proposal contained in Clause 4 affecting the licensing of private hire vehicles is that every participating London borough, at present consisting of 31 out of 32, should issue licences to applicants. The borough of Greenwich has refused to participate, so already the confusion starts. Why do these proposals pose direct and real threats to the licensed hackney carriages of London? They do so for the following reasons. First, there would be no enforceable controls exercised over the operations of minicabs in London after the introduction of Clause 4. Each participating borough council would be required to introduce controls and standards. In other words, it would be legislation on the hoof.

Secondly, even if tight and proper controls are in place before these proposals become law, who will enforce them? Will they be enforceable? Who is to police it all? Is it to be the Department of Transport and the Metropolitan Police, which already exercise strict controls over the licensed black taxis through the Public Carriage Office? Surely not, my Lords. The police already have their hands more than full with their many onerous duties and could not take on 35,000 minicab operators as well. If not the police, who then will do so? Will the London boroughs employ an army of enforcers to see that the yet to be initiated laws which it is hoped will control and limit the illegal activities of minicabs are enforced? Let us make no mistake about it: it will take an army.

In this context I should like to acquaint the House with an operation mounted in Birmingham in August 1989. Tired of massive illegal private hire operations in which hundreds of them were openly plying the streets for hire, Birmingham's principal consumer protection officer, in conjunction with Birmingham city police, mounted a round-up operation of some of these illegal and lethal cowboys. I was a part of that operation and spent most of one night in a police car observing what was going on. What I saw horrified me: ramshackle, broken-down vehicles offering themselves for hire almost invariably licensed from somewhere else —another authority — which invalidated their licence and their insurance. Most of the drivers when questioned by the police offered the excuse that they had been booked by telephone, but in no case could anyone be found who had made the booking. They were clearly cowboys.

My point is that those cowboys were under the controls of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 and that clearly the Act was not working as it was intended. And why? The reason was that to enforce it required an army of enforcers. The two nights in August in Birmingham required 36 people and six policemen to mount the operation. If one multiplies that figure by the total number of London boroughs, adds in the differences in population between Birmingham and London and takes into account the differences in size between the two cities, one has a rough idea of the gigantic problems that would face the enforcers, even if they were to exist.

I come to my third point. If minicab operators were to be given badges, plates and taxi meters, the public, be they Londoners, other citizens of this country or visitors from overseas, would assume that these vehicles were licensed taxis and were available for hire. Fourthly, visitors to London who telephone for a taxi, or who ask their hotel for a taxi, would assume that the driver of the vehicle that arrived would have a working knowledge of London. That is not so. The only two requirements asked for by the Bill for private hire licence applicants is that they hold a clean, current driving licence and have one year's driving experience.

My fifth point is that the Bill would allow minicabs to install taxi meters. No restrictions would apply to the rate, which could be set at anything the operator wanted or thought he could get away with. In other words, giving him a licence would legalise customer rip-off. Do we really want this? This legislation changes nothing. Already more than 35,000 minicabs are running around London, a good many of them operating within the law. But a large number do not operate within the law, and they will not change their ways because of these proposals, which merely give legality to unscrupulous hotel staff and minicab operators.

My sixth point is that local authorities would not be given access to the criminal records of licence applicants. Therefore it would be easy for an applicant to fail to declare any previous convictions for serious crimes. My seventh point is that the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 demands that both hackney carriages and private hire vehicles are maintained to the same high standards. That is wishful thinking, as I observed in Birmingham. How will this be achieved in London, and who will see to it? We are back again to that mythical army.

I come now to my eighth point. The method of licensing taxis in London was recently revised, allowing more applicants for licensing in the suburbs. Currently more than 900 drivers are passing through the knowledge test for London's suburbs in addition to those already operating with their yellow badges. Those 900 drivers will start to come on stream in April.

I move on now to point nine. Since 1985 the Metropolitan Police authorities have issued 3,964 new Hackney carriage licences in central London. Moreover, recent proposals submitted by the Association of Taxi Proprietors are designed to increase that number.

I turn now to point 10, and noble Lords will be relieved to know that I have nearly reached the end of my speech. The considerable investment made by the manufacturers of the black taxi, Carbodies of Coventry, in the wheelchair facility for disabled people would also be threatened by the legislation if minicabs were to be given licences. At present, all taxis coming off the assembly line in Coventry are required by law to provide that valuable facility. Who in their right economic minds will pay up to £20,000 for a new black taxi from Coventry when they can carry on their business operating from a second-hand car which they can buy from any local garage for a fraction of that price?

In conclusion, I should like to quote from a letter written by the Minister for Public Transport, Mr. Michael Portillo, to the Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Cecil Parkinson. It is dated July 17th 1989. It reads: Government Ministers in the House of Lords, where the Bill"— that is, the Bill which we are now discussing — currently rests, have expressed firmly severe doubts about the proposal's effectiveness and practicability. The Bill's promoters are currently considering how best to take matters forward given the problems encountered with a number of its proposals. My view is clear: while I am not opposed in principle to some form of regulatory system for London's minicabs I have yet to see a good case for introducing one now. Moreover I do not like the Boroughs' proposal for 32 licensing areas; it is over-complicated and will be a burden on businesses". I apologise to the House for the length of my speech tonight, but at stake is simply the finest licensed taxi service of anywhere in the world, bar none. It enjoys a hard-won reputation for its standards of excellence. The black, or whatever colour, London taxi cab is symbolic of this country. It is a symbol that is known, admired and respected the world over. In my opinion the proposed legislation would destroy that reputation at a stroke for the many reasons I have mentioned, and no doubt there will be further reasons put forward by other noble Lords.

I believe that the licensed taxi drivers are right to defend their trade. I for one stand by them and, in so doing, I ask the promoters of this Bill to withdraw Clause 4 for reconsideration by all interested and concerned parties.

I am not opposed to a licensed second-tier taxi service for London, nor are the licensed taxi drivers. However, what they and I are opposed to is that the second tier is licensed without the strict controls and regulations that govern the first tier.

8.3 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I start by saying that I am implacably opposed to Clause 4 and the adoption of Schedule 2 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, said, if I heard her correctly, that the average family car travels about 15,000 miles a year. I suggest to her that she has got the figure wrong and that the figure is about half that. The noble Earl who has just spoken has given the House facts and figures. I shall not bore your Lordships by repeating them. However, I shall recount just one or two true stories about black cabs.

A few weeks ago a letter written by an American tourist appeared in the Daily Mail. He explained how he had hailed a black cab and asked to be driven to his hotel. He subsequently arrived there, paid the black cab driver and went into the hotel. The taxi drove off and was ultimately flagged down by another person. However, on opening the door the driver saw a wallet sitting on the floor. He turned down the fare, drove back to the hotel and handed in the wallet. The tourist concluded his letter by asking, "Is there any other capital city in the world which has such honest cab drivers as those in London?".

On August 1st the year before last my wife and I were being driven towards the Royal Horseguards Hotel in a black cab. I think that what I have to say will embarrass my wife as she happens to be listening to me tonight. We had just got married. We were sitting in the back of the cab and, as newlyweds tend to be, we were fairly happy. When we arrived at our destination one of us said —I claim that I said it; but my wife claims that she did —to the cab driver that we were sorry, but that we had just got married. Whichever one of us it was asked how much the fare would be. The cab driver said, "It's all right, it's my wedding present to you". I ask noble Lords would a cab driver anywhere else in the world do that?

On another day I picked up a cab at Waterloo, although I normally travel by Underground. We went on our journey but instead of turning left the driver turned to the right and we went over the wrong bridge. The cab driver turned to me and said, "Sorry, guv', I went over the wrong bridge". I said "Yes, I know". He then said, "Don't worry, sir, I'll put it right". Eventually we arrived at your Lordships' House and he reduced the fare by 1.50. I said, "No way", and I paid him the full amount. I knew he was wrong and he knew he was wrong; but it was a genuine mistake.

I have a very good friend. As a young man he had to be taken to the dental hospital in Leicester Square. His mother hailed a cab and the cab driver asked, "Where to?" She asked, "Do you know the dental hospital in Leicester Square? He said, "Yes, why?" She thought to herself: "Oh, my God! I've got one of those". She explained that she had to take her son there for treatment. He said, "What's wrong with him?" She said, "Well, he's got an abcess on an impacted wisdom tooth". After that the taxi driver took them to the hospital.

When they left the hospital two hours later she heard a loud whistle —the kind of whistle I have never been able to do, though I only wish I could. It was the same cab driver. He said, "Here lady, how's the nipper now? Is he all right?" She explained that he was. He said, "I thought I'd better wait for you". At that point he pulled out a key ring with a little compass upon it and handed it to the boy. When we talk about big-heartedness, such an example is beautiful.

Ever since I realised that this matter was to be debated each time I have got into a black cab —or whatever colour it may be —I have asked the driver, "Have you ever heard of any black cab driver molesting, assaulting or doing anything to a woman passenger?" Each driver has said, "No, never". If you read the reports in newspapers you will see that it is in fact licensed or unlicensed minicab drivers, some of whom are just out of prison, who commit such offences.

I love my wife and I adore my mother-in-law. I would hate them to hire anything except a black cab in the capital city. I do not trust minicabs. Indeed, some of the vehicles are falling to pieces. Moreover, if they have an MOT certificate I cannot think why. I think that the situation is terrible.

There is much that is wrong with the Bill we are discussing. The length of time it takes to acquire The Knowledge has already been mentioned. Moreover, if you have a yellow badge you can pick up a passenger from central London and take him outside your area, but you are not allowed to pick up a return fare. That is most unfair. If we pass this particular clause we shall destroy the position of the black cabs in London.

Our cab service in London is the envy of the world. Let us forget about capital cities; there is no large city in the world which has such honest and logical people as our black cab drivers. If we allow that situation to change all of us in this House, our children and grandchildren will regret it for evermore.

Lord Carnock

My Lords, in addressing your Lordships for the first time I have the task of giving some explanation of the decision of the committee of which I had the honour to be chairman regarding private hire vehicles. I had in mind to deal with this under three headings. The first relates to the need for the proposed legislation, the second to certain problems with the existing legislation and the third to the statement made on behalf of the government department.

As regards the first, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships that there are in London about 15,000 black cabs licensed by the Hackney Carriage Office and about 20,000 drivers so licensed. The number of private hire vehicles concerning which we heard evidence was 40,000, as stated by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. Of the 40,000, many work part-time, whereas the black cab drivers generally work full-time.

There was evidence that in certain areas of the private hire trade throughout the country cowboy operators were at work and criminal elements were attracted. Apart from offences under the Road Traffic Act and illegal plying for hire, drugs, prostitution, indecent offences with children and burglaries were all mentioned. There was evidence that some of the vehicles were dirty or unroadworthy and on occasions that there were physically violent clashes with the regular taxi trade.

In a recent police strike in Birmingham —which must be the same as the one about which we have already heard —on a Friday night no fewer than 286 alleged offences were uncovered. This was a one-off operation. We had evidence that enforcement was a persistent problem with the legislation.

Regulations under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 were in force in the majority of areas throughout the country, including all the great conurbations other than London. The only petitioner against the proposals was the Transport and General Workers' Union representing the three London taxi drivers' associations, the proprietors and the large licensed taxi radio circuits.

The union's main concern was to avoid the establishment of another regulatory system. It hoped to increase the number of black cabs regulated through the Hackney Carriage Office. This would mean that applicants for licences would have to pass the daunting knowledge of London test. Although a system of less exacting tests has been devised for certain peripheral areas, it appeared unlikely that there would be a sufficient increase in black cabs to meet the demand for hire vehicles. In any case the basic cost of a black cab according to the evidence that we heard is about £16,000. They are fine vehicles, many of which have special facilities for the disabled. In these circumstances the committee had little difficulty in deciding that the need for some regulation in the field of private hire was established.

In relation to the second matter, the history of the present legislation may usefully be recalled. The Hindley Committee first recommended that there should be some regulation in the field of private hire as long ago as 1939; but with the disturbances of the war and its aftermath, nothing was done until the Maxwell Stamp Committee in 1970 recommended the licensing of minicabs. No action followed until the matter was picked up in local legislation by the Plymouth City Council Bill in 1975. The private hire provisions were subsequently lifted out of this Bill and inserted by amendment into the 1976 Act. Of course they only have effect if adopted by a local authority and within its area. The Act does not extend to London.

The geography of Plymouth, which is near my home, is such as not to present trans-boundary problems of significance, so it is not perhaps surprising that these problems have caused difficulty in other areas; and certainly they could be formidable in the case of the 31 London boroughs.

Perhaps I should explain that where there is control under the present legislation, a private hire vehicle can operate from a district where there are no, or only light, regulations and obtain custom in a neighbouring area which is stringently regulated but without complying with the regulations in force in that area.

This problem has been addressed by two amendments which were agreed prior to the hearing before the committee and which are now in the Bill. One of them provides for the Secretary of State to be consulted prior to the adoption of the private hire provisions by any borough, thus in practice enabling the department to exercise by persuasion, but only by persuasion, a co-ordinating role; and the other of which provides for the registration of a vehicle or driver in one borough to be effective in the other boroughs.

As regards the third and final matter, it will be remembered that at Second Reading on 15th February, 1989 my noble friend the Minister informed the House that the Government believed that there should be comprehensive legislation which would take the whole country into account. But subsequently the Government had second thoughts and on 11th May 1989 the Minister responsible in another place stated that the Government did not intend to change the present arrangements concerning the black cab or the knowledge of London test; nor did they intend to alter the distinction between the taxi and hire car trades. The reasons for this change of mind were not developed before the committee but the matter appeared to turn upon the desire of the Government to promote business opportunities by limiting restrictions upon entry into the trade.

The members of your Lordships' committee were not aware that the Government had changed their mind in this way until they were so informed by the departmental spokesman at the hearing on 13th October 1989. In reply to questions the departmental spokesman confirmed that the department would be ready to have consultations with each borough desiring to adopt a scheme in order to secure so far as possible a uniform system.

In these circumstances the committee decided that the provisions relating to private hire, as amended, should proceed. In giving that decision I was asked to say that the committee had had regard to the fact that the Government had no plans for the introduction of general legislation for the regulation of private hire vehicles. I hope that this explanation will be of assistance to your Lordships.

8.18 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, it is my very pleasant duty as the next speaker to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Carnock, on his excellent and well informed speech this evening. We have been friends for quite some time and since he is the Chief of the Clan Nicolson and we have been discussing clans a great deal this afternoon, this is for him an opportune day on which to have made his maiden speech. We hope that he will continue to give us his wisdom and knowledge in this sphere as well as others in the future. However, I do not think I can go all the way down the road that the noble Lord has traversed. From previous experience I favour enormously the system of black cab licensed drivers that we have in London. I understand that there are 19,000 licensed black cab drivers in London and that we are likely to have another 960.

As has been said so eloquently by the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, in an excellent speech, our black taxi cab drivers are second to none in the world. They are trained, trusted and their cabs are clean. I believe that the families of the drivers are visited by representatives from Scotland Yard and references are taken up before licences are issued. After that drivers must undergo a long training.

I worry sometimes about the foreign visitors to our country. They are very welcome. Before they come they are told to take a black cab. Black cabs have a distinctive appearance. Those visitors are told that if they take a black cab they will receive good service and they will know within £1 or £2 what they will have to pay at the end of their journey. However, that does not happen, and will not happen, as regards unlicensed minicabs. Even if they are licensed I do not think that foreign visitors will be able to distinguish minicabs or trust their drivers. Standards will vary from borough to borough. There are 32 boroughs in London and they will each have different standards. Fares will probably be different in different boroughs, and the boroughs themselves will decide who to license and what companies to license. I cannot envisage any cohesion about the whole plan.

I know that this is a Private Member's Bill. It was moved so eloquently by my noble friend, but Clause 4 seems to me to be the wrong way of seeking to provide more hire cars within London. I am sure that a better way will be found of licensing ordinary cars. This is not the way to do it. I have rung round the country to one or two cities but I have yet to find a better system than that provided by the licensed black cabs that we have in London now. This Bill has started in this House and will therefore proceed to another place. I hope that due consideration will be given there to the weighty words that noble Lords have spoken tonight. I know several people who are much too frightened to ask a minicab driver to pick them up. I hope therefore that something will come of the discussions we have had tonight.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, for years I have admired the patience and the stamina of my noble friend Lord Carnock. I have often seen him sitting where he is sitting now late at night, paying close attention to all our proceedings. I often wondered why he did not intervene in our debates on the Floor of the House. The reason was, of course, that he also did a lot of work on committees. We have now had the real advantage and pleasure of hearing him make his maiden speech on this Bill.

The committee of which he was chairman considered this Bill at great length and with great care and reached the conclusions that we have heard. I must say that I agree with those conclusions. I entirely share the admiration that has been expressed of London taxi cabs. Indeed, some 30 years ago it was part of my Home Office responsibilities to keep an eye on the way in which the commissioner licensed them. Occasionally interested parties would come to me and ask for more taxi cabs. Sometimes the taxi cab people themselves would have a point. I think they provide a wonderful service and have done so all my lifetime, which is a long time. However, I cannot agree with the assumption that if we licensed minicabs in London that would lead to any kind of deterioration in the quality of service given by the taxis, or that it would adversely affect their financial interests. Indeed, I take the opposite view.

I shall concede one thing. The administration of those parts of the 1976 Act which are referred to in the Bill has been very uneven throughout those parts of England and Wales where they apply. In some places the legislation has worked beneficially. I happen to live in a county which, I am happy to say, is still called Huntingdonshire because that is the name of the district council. In my county the minicabs are licensed. They play fair and the taxi operators get on well with them. Our system is an excellent way of allowing the public to have two kinds of cab service. The public can have cabs, like the London cabs, of a high standard and which ply for hire the whole time. The public also have access to minicabs which often work part-time but which have to be registered.

The fact that in London there would also be an uneven performance does not worry me at all, because I think that to the extent that it works in some boroughs it would be worth doing and would not adversely affect the interests of the taxi cabs. I think it is in the public interest that minicabs should be licensed. There are the wrongdoers among minicab operators but I think there would be fewer wrongdoers if they all had to be licensed. Then it would be possible for authorities to keep a closer eye on them. Therefore I support Clause 4 of this Bill.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I support this Bill to a certain extent, but to license 40,000 minicab drivers would be rather a cumbersome process. I must congratulate my noble friend Lord Carnock on his most excellent speech. My noble friend Lord Renton remembers him sitting here for a long time, but I also remember the father of the noble Lord, Lord Carnock, sitting next to where the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, is now sitting. While licensing 40,000 minicab drivers might become rather a bureaucratic affair, nevertheless something has to be done.

There was a proposal to license minicab proprietors. It was proposed that minicab proprietors should be put on the same footing as a licensee of a public house or a licensee of a betting shop, whereby the barmaid or barman or counter clerk is not held responsible for the premises but the landlord and the betting shop manager are. Therefore the scheme that is proposed would mean that owners of minicab firms would be responsible for a higher standard of character on the part of their drivers. Perhaps owners would not have the same privileges as the Public Carriage Office has with regard to the police register. That matter may have to be considered. However, if one message has come over from this debate so far it is that people must be driven in a safe way.

Another salient point concerns vehicles. I believe my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes mentioned that the normal mileage for an ordinary private car was 15,000 miles a year whereas for the average minicab in London it was about 50,000 miles a year. Therefore minicab vehicles would have to be tested.

I do not believe that the point has been made this evening, but the charge has often been levelled that many of the 40,000 drivers are people who draw dole or they may work part time. We do not want any social security fraud. That matter must be looked at most carefully.

Either the Bill should go forward —and I do not believe that it is quite right at the moment —or the Government must bring forward legislation very soon. It is a great pity that that Green Paper came out when it did.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, as I believe all speakers have, in urging the promoters of the Bill to withdraw Clause 4.

At the outset I should declare an interest. I am adviser to the British Tourist Authority. The British Tourist Authority has a statutory duty under the Development of Tourism Act to advise the Government on matters relating to tourism. As the noble Earl reminded us, when the possibility of the liberalisation of the London plying for hire regime was considered by the department in 1988 the authority made a submission through the usual channels against any change and very much in favour of the black cab. We have talked a great deal about black cab drivers; perhaps we should have talked about drivers of black cabs.

The authority gave 12 reasons for preserving the status quo. I shall not quote all of them; I shall quote only four because I am in a sense the cheeseboard in the dinner break business, and I know that the House has other matters to deal with.

A major point in the British Tourist Authority's argument was the Knowledge, the cross-border knowledge —the requirement to achieve a qualification. After all, the noble Baroness had to achieve a qualification before she could practise as a dentist. She had to prove her competence to practise. The authority was in favour of the licensing of cabs under the present system by the department not least because the department had access to criminal records which, as has been said previously this evening, the London boroughs do not necessarily have.

In speaking of the department, I am surprised that no noble Lord has mentioned the work that the department has sponsored in that context in relation to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

A third argument related to the safety and appropriateness of the vehicle for the job in hand as reflected in the present inspection system. A fourth argument was cross-border fares. In the same way as the licensing system, the Knowledge and the quality of the vehicle were guarantees of the quality of the service provided; so is the present review system.

My noble friend Lord Underhill knows that I should also declare an interest on behalf of British Rail. Although it has no duty to do so, British Rail seeks to make sure that when it delivers passengers to a London terminus it hands them over to a black cab driver. Noble Lords will be aware of notices at termini and at airports, "Beware of the cowboy operator. Use only a black cab".

Lastly I should like to pray in aid somebody in whom I do not have an interest but I read his book with great interest. Some noble Lords will recall that Bernard Levin recently wrote and published a book about his experiences in New York. A different kind of Londoner it would be hard to imagine. He is a very committed Londoner in many respects. His columns in The Times remind us that he is also a human being with the interests of the world at heart. He pointed out in one of the excerpts from his book published in a newspaper that he had taken a yellow cab in New York. In New York there is licensing by the boroughs rather than by a collective authority. One takes a yellow cab in Newark into New York. As many of your Lordships will know, New York is a grid iron city. If one is in 42nd Street one ought to know where 47th Street is. Bernard Levin said that two experiences of yellow cabs in New York, particularly those licensed outside Manhattan, made him pray, and he felt that one of the things that would really improve New York was a good black cab system. I support the noble Earl.

8.35 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I have listened with interest to the debate which has centered so far on Clause 4 of the Bill. It would not be appropriate for me to express a view on the merits of the clause but I should underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carnock, in an admirable maiden speech that the arguments for and against the clause were considered very carefully by the Select Committee, and it decided unanimously that the clause should proceed. I hope that the House will give due weight to that fact.

I hope that those noble Lords who were critical of the clause do not intend to oppose the Third Reading. The Bill still has to go to another place. There it will be quite possible to petition against the clause if so desired. That was the wise advice given to the House by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, and I commend it to your Lordships. There is no amendment before us to delete Clause 4. If the Third Reading were to be refused, a number of other clauses which are unopposed would fall by the wayside.

Perhaps I may take the opportunity of thanking members of the Select Committee, under the able chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Carnock, for giving up so much of their time to consideration of the Bill. The House is well served by those of your Lordships who agree to sit on Private Bill Committees. At the beginning of what is likely to be another very busy Session for such committees I should like to express my gratitude to all noble Lords who serve on them.

The main reason why I wish to intervene in the debate is to make a general observation about the Bill's passage through your Lordships' House. Leaving aside the formal clauses, the Bill was introduced in November 1988 with six parts containing 55 clauses. This evening it will leave the House for another place with just one part containing five clauses. Two whole parts, together containing 31 clauses, and two further important clauses were withdrawn by the promoters before the Select Committee sat. A further part with 12 clauses was disallowed by the Select Committee. Finally, four clauses were either disallowed by the Unopposed Bill Committee or withdrawn with that committee's leave. That amounts to 50 clauses out of an original 55.

I am bound to say that when quite so many provisions fall by the wayside, whether in the face of opposition or at the instance of the promoters themselves, one is bound to question whether sufficient consideration was given to the provisions before they were included in a Bill introduced into Parliament. So far as concerns Private Bills, both this Session and last have been exceptionally busy ones and I know that promoters will appreciate that a Bill of this kind inevitably provokes a great deal of work on the part of the House. In addition of course there are those outside Parliament —organisations of one sort or another as well as individuals —who have to spend time, and in some cases money, considering the implications of the powers sought in the Bill and, if necessary, preparing petitions against it for deposit in Parliament.

I hope that the promoters of the Bill will bear those points in mind. I have no doubt that we shall see further London local authority Bills—indeed another has been introduced in the current Session —but I hope that on future occasions provisions are included only after careful consideration and, where appropriate, due consultation with interested parties.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, we have had an interesting debate which has raised several interesting points. I want first to make it clear that we on this side of the House shall not oppose the Third Reading. It is not our policy to do so, but I shall have some comments to make in that regard before I close.

I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, for introducing the criticism of the Bill in such an excellent speech. I want to avoid covering the ground that he has covered. We are also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carnock, as chairman of the committee, for explaining why the committee has taken certain decisions. That is helpful to the House. Having had them explained, I believe that the committee did its best, but it is not what is desirable.

It was noticeable that everyone, including the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, paid tribute to the London taxi trade, as happened on Second Reading. Everyone is fully complimentary of the work of the London taxi trade. I do not intend to knock the private hire trade and minicabs. I frequently use a minicab when I have an early appointment in the House or elsewhere to travel from my home in Essex or when I carry luggage to a London terminal station. I should make it clear that I do not charge the Treasury for that. I do not knock the minicab trade in general, but we should bear in mind certain points as a result of changes in the Bill. I agree that changes have been made. Some have been made because of what was said on Second Reading. I am certain that it was realised that the proposal for helicopter licences was nonsense. That point was made at length by a number of speakers on Second Reading.

On Second Reading I referred to the review conducted by the Government into the taxi and private hire industry. Noble Lords heard reference today to the statement by Mr. Portillo on 11th May 1989 when he referred to that review and made it clear that, so far as concerns London, there would be no change in the knowledge or in the present requirements and that he did not propose to change the position of taxi cabs and the minicab trade. However, it is generally agreed that the licensing provisions in the 1976 Act have not worked well throughout the country. Reference was made to the position in the city of Birmingham. I shall not repeat those comments save to say that Birmingham has had some unpleasant experiences with regard to illegal operations.

The Bill has been amended by removing Clause 49 and inserting Clause 4. I must make it clear that Clause 4 gives London boroughs the option of whether to license minicab vehicles, drivers and operators in their area. They may choose whether to do so. As distinct from the control over licensed taxi cabs by the Public Carriage Office, to which a number of noble Lords paid compliment on the way in which it exercises that control, a borough which decides to take up the option to license hire cars need not go through certain checks. I must emphasise the points that have been made. The borough need not check about criminal records. It need not set fares. It need not stipulate that there must be meters, but if a vehicle has a meter the fares must be declared, not controlled. The meters must operate properly. Different standards might therefore apply in each of the 32 London boroughs.

It is said that there will be consultation to encourage the boroughs to have civilised standards, but that is not what the Bill states. The Bill will enable each London borough to set separate standards if it should so desire. A borough has the option as to whether it wants to license. There will be no compulsion. If it decides to license minicabs, there will be no compulsion as to the standards set. If a borough takes up the option to license private hire cars or minicabs, such vehicles will be free to operate in all London boroughs.

Reference has been made to the Knowledge. I understand that it is now possible for knowledge of only the area of the licensing borough to be required. That need take only three to four months' work on the part of the applicant. Before a driver is licensed by the Public Carriage Office, he or she must acquire knowledge of the whole of London, which may take up to two years to complete.

Unless the Bill is amended, London may have a three-tier trade. The taxi cabs —the black cabs —would be licensed as at present through the Public Carriage Office. The private hire cars —minicabs —would work on different and less stringent conditions as applied by the 32 London boroughs. There would then be a third tier acting illegally, as has happened in the city of Birmingham. We are therefore likely to have inferior conditions for licensing of such vehicles which would be free to ply for hire using radio circuits, if so desired.

It is said that, before a borough decides to take up the option to license minicabs, there must be consultation with the Secretary of State. I note what the noble Baroness said; namely, that all the Secretary of State can do is to exercise persuasion as to the conditions which a London borough may decide to apply. The Secretary of State cannot compel all 32 London boroughs to have the same conditions. That is farcical if the vehicles are liable to travel in any part of London.

I also remind noble Lords that the Minister said that, if there are to be any changes, they should be comprehensive and apply to the country as a whole. In the light of the criticisms of the operation of the 1976 Act in various parts of the country, that would appear to be the correct policy.

With regard to the consultation which the Secretary of State will have before any London borough opts to have licences and minicabs, there is no reference as to whether there will be any consultation with the London Taxi Board, which represents taxi proprietors, private owners and taxi drivers. I remind noble Lords that I made it clear on Second Reading that the taxi section of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association were not consulted about the Bill. The taxi section of the TGWU only learnt about the Bill by chance. If there is to be consultation by the Secretary of State with any London borough which decides to take up the option of licensing, I hope that there will also be consultation with the London taxi trade.

In conclusion —I do not wish to cover the ground that has been covered so well by others who have criticised the Bill —as I have already said, by convention we do not vote against the Third Reading. The Bill will now go to the Commons, which I hope will take serious note not only of what was said in the Select Committee but what has been said in tonight's debate. The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, the Chairman of Committees, were extremely helpful. We do not want a repeat of the situation in which a Bill which we discuss on Second Reading and which then goes to a Select Committee is mutilated, although it must be said that the Bill needed to be mutilated. That is not the way to carry on our business.

In view of the criticism that exists I wonder whether even at this stage the promoters of the Bill might not consider withdrawing this section either during the Commons stages or before then. There are, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said, other sections of the Bill that we should hate to see deleted. As it is at present, I believe that an attempt has been made to improve the situation, but I do not believe that it will work in the interests of the London cab trade.

8.50 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, it may be helpful if I give the House an indication of the Government's views on the Bill, which was so ably brought to the House for Third Reading this evening by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, and in particular on Clause 4. But before doing so I cannot resist the opportunity, as one clan chief to another, to congratulate my noble friend Lord Carnock on his unusual achievement in making a maiden speech as chairman of a Private Bill Committee reporting to this House and doing so in such an appropriate, sagacious and distinguished manner.

In general, the Government have no objection to the principle of London local authorities, as they are empowered to do by statute, seeking in promoting this Bill additional general powers for the London area. With one exception —namely, Clause 6 —all the provisions in the Bill to which government departments objected have been either withdrawn or disallowed by committees of your Lordships' House. On Clause 6, the Department of the Environment, while having no objection to the purpose of the clause, considers that the powers are too widely drawn. Negotiations are continuing with the promoters to provide a more tightly drawn provision. I hope that this issue can be resolved in due course.

At Second Reading my noble friend Lord Arran expressed the Government's view on what is now Clause 4, which provides for the introduction of licensing for London minicabs. He explained, first, that the Government were reviewing the need for comprehensive legislation on taxis and private hire cars on a nationwide basis; and secondly, that the provision as drafted seemed impractical.

Your Lordships may recall the Department of Transport's fundamental review of all taxi and private hire vehicle licensing which was completed in May of last year. During the course of the review reactions were obtained from the public, licensing authorities and those within the trades on the absence of minicab licensing in London, as well as on other aspects of licensing. Following the review, the Government announced that they had no present plans to legislate to change the position in London. I have to say that so far the case for licensing in London remains in our view uproven. Allegations of malpractice in the London minicab trade are often made, but are rarely supported by hard evidence which might justify new legislation.

Your Lordships may recall that my honourable friend the Minister of State for Public Transport recently announced in another place that the Government were providing funding to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust —as I believe was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans —which is conducting research into passenger experiences with the minicab trade. They will also look at the question of whether licensing of minicabs would be likely to have any impact on safety. The results of this research should be available in about 12 months' time, and should provide a useful contribution to the debate on the need for licensing.

The most frequent complaint made during the review was a lack of police record checks on drivers of taxis outside London and of private hire vehicles everywhere. Let me stress that this issue is not addressed by the licensing provisions of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 and therefore powers to make such checks would not be provided by Clause 4 of this Bill. The whole question of police record checks on drivers is a separate issue currently being examined by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office.

The Government were also concerned that simply extending the private hire licensing provisions of the 1976 Act would create 31 separate licensing authorities, with consequent scope for cross-border hiring confusion such as sometimes exists outside the capital. However, I have to say that the amendment since tabled by the Bill's promoters making vehicle, driver and operator licences issued by one London council valid in any other participating borough should ease much of the cross-border problem. We are still concerned that the public may be confused not only about whether their council practises licensing at all but also about the level of stringency applied by their council compared, for example, with the neighbouring council. This could lead to confusion when ordering minicabs about the licensing regime under which they operate. It is also possible that licence applicants might migrate to particular boroughs where the most minimal standards required by the clause are applied but then concentrate operations in more restrictive boroughs. No doubt that problem could be overcome by the boroughs agreeing common licensing conditions but I think it is only right to point out that there are still potential practical difficulties with this provision.

London is served by a taxi trade which, largely because of its unique purpose-built vehicles, has long been famous worldwide. Standards are set by the Public Carriage Office and drivers must pass through rigorous testing, in particular of their knowledge of London. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, told some charming stories illustrating the standards of service and the esprit de corps, if I may use a French phrase to describe such a British institution, which may be found among taxi drivers. However, I take the same view as my noble friend Lord Renton. I do not think that the introduction of Clause 4 would undermine these benefits as much as some of the taxi trade seems to fear. Nor do I think that it would put taxis out of business. In areas where both taxis and private hire vehicles are licensed (that is to say, approximately 90 per cent. of district councils), taxis do not appear to have suffered. Where information is available, the number of licensed taxis increased by 37 per cent. between 1985 and 1989. Organisations representing the taxi trade have had an opportunity to present their case to a Select Committee of your Lordships' House and, if they or others remain dissatisfied with the provisions of the Bill, there will be a further opportunity for them to petition against the Bill in another place, as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has just pointed out to us.

In conclusion, while the Government acknowledge that the amendment to Clause 4 tabled in Committee has improved the practicability of the Bill, we nevertheless remain unconvinced of the need for licensing in London and therefore are neutral on this clause. As I have already stated, subject to the successful resolution of the negotiations on Clause 6, the Government are content with the rest of the Bill.

8.57 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank those Members who have taken part in the debate on this Third Reading. However, I feel that every speech we have heard has made it more apparent that there is now no control whatever over minicabs and that some control is necessary. As I listened to people putting one case, I felt that they made exactly the opposite case.

The noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, said that the problem was that people with criminal records might fail to declare them on their applications for licences. That is true, because it would have to be on a self-declaration basis. As has been said, the police would not provide criminal records. But in the event of an accident and someone being brought to court, it would then certainly come out should he have a criminal record. If he had made a wrong or false declaration on his application, it would be taken much more seriously.

As I said, we continually have cases in court of people who not only have criminal records but have no insurance whatever for car or passenger. A very important point to make, which I think was not clearly made in the noble Earl's speech, is that this provision would not allow minicabs to ply for hire in the streets. There would still have to be the same arrangement as now; namely, that a contract would be made between the hirer and the provider of the service. There would be no right to ply for hire. That is being done illegally and no doubt people will continue to act illegally but there is no suggestion of legalising that practice.

Like other speakers I very much enjoyed the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I accept what he said about average family car mileage being perhaps 7,500. I was given the figure by one of the car services. From my own experience I would not know about car mileage. However, the important point was the vast difference between the 50,000 miles travelled by a minicab in a year and the very much smaller mileage done by a private car.

I know that it is not traditional for all speakers to compliment a noble Lord on his maiden speech, but, under the very exceptional circumstances of his being chairman of the committee and his making such a marvellous summary of its proceedings, I must add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Carnock. He pointed out that there are 50,000 black cabs and 40,000 minicabs in London. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, mentioned that there are 19,000 drivers of the black cabs. I have not yet put those figures together.

The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, said —and I think it is most important —that she would be much too frightened to ask a minicab to pick her up. That is a very real problem facing people now. They are frightened to ask for a minicab because they have no way of knowing whether it will be safe and its driver honest and reliable. The provision in the Bill to supervise and license such minicabs must be an advantage.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, supported me, so I will not reply to any point that he made. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said he thought it was the proprietors who should be licensed. That is a very interesting idea which may have a lot to commend it but, like the views of the taxi drivers, it has come forward rather late.

I would emphasise that the Bill was deposited in November 1988. It was advertised correctly in all the papers and there was the opportunity to petition against it. Its Second Reading was a year ago in February 1989. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, spoke on behalf of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and yet tonight he said it was just by chance that they heard about it. Was it just by chance a year ago or was it just by chance a week ago? How is it that I have heard nothing from anyone in a year, and then last week I was asked to meet taxi drivers and minicab drivers, and even today motorbike couriers, who are concerned that somehow this may affect them.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I referred to the Second Reading debate. It was only then that, by chance, the Transport and General Workers' Union heard about the Bill. Of course, this time they have fully informed noble Lords of the position.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that clarification, and in the interim in this year they have presented their case to the committee on the Bill. This is what I cannot understand: if these people had so many points why were they not presented to the committee?

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, said that as a dentist I had had to qualify before I could practise. That is absolutely true, and he made a comparison with the cab drivers. But in dentistry we now have dental hygienists, dental ancillaries and all sorts of other people as well. We no longer have a profession exclusive to dentists.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Of course we have dental hygienists and others, but they are not allowed to practise nationwide as dentists.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, this is exactly my point about minicabs. We are not suggesting that they should have the right to ply for hire or look or act like black cabs. They would be an ancillary service in the way that dental hygienists are.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, also mentioned how British Rail liked one to take a black cab from the station. Of course we all like to do that, but how long have we waited in queues at stations? That demonstrates how short of black cabs we are. If there were no minicabs we could not cope at all, because there are 40,000 minicabs at the moment.

The Chairman of Committees, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said that this Bill had been very much reduced; he said they had disallowed 12 clauses. I do not know exactly what that means and whether "disallowed" means that they just threw them out.

The Chairman of Committees

Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, so on those 12 clauses I cannot claim responsibility in any way on behalf of the promoters for withdrawing them. It looks as though they were disallowed and rejected out of hand. But I appreciate the point made that others were withdrawn. The difficulty with this kind of Bill is that it represents a group of London boroughs each of which has its own specific problem, and it has been put together under the auspices of just one promoting authority acting on behalf of all the other London boroughs. I will pass his message on. I think it is important not to waste the time of the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned that he frequently uses minicabs. I thought it very unfortunate that in his final sentence he said that he spoke "in the interests of the London cab trade". That was a shame because I thought he was speaking in the interests of the public. I believe that this Bill is in the public's interests and that there should be some proper licensing system. I believe that the whole question of enforcement is a legitimate one. Only when the enforcement is in practice will we see how well it works or does not work, but I believe that any degree of control must be better than the present situation of no control. I ask the House to give this Bill a Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.