HL Deb 17 July 1998 vol 592 cc542-72

2.21 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

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

I am very glad to be able to commend this Bill to your Lordships' House. The proper regulation of London minicabs is an issue in which I myself have long taken an interest—to the extent of seeking to promote a Private Member's Bill some years ago. I know that my concern is shared by many noble Lords who believe that the complete absence of regulation in the London minicab trade is a serious anomaly which should be remedied as a matter of public safety.

The Bill seeks to provide such a remedy. It was introduced in another place many months ago by Sir George Young. I believe great credit is due to him for his patient determination that the Bill should progress. The Bill had an unopposed Second Reading in the other place, and hopes were high for its success. It then ran into the particular problems which this Session have beset Private Members' Bills. I would remind your Lordships of the short debate which we had in this House on 13th May, when we feared that the Bill was lost. More recently, I am delighted to say, it has come back to life, with the result that we can debate it today.

It follows that we are in a different procedural position from what we once expected. It had previously been thought that even if the Bill had made progress in the other place, it would have been without any very detailed examination. In fact, the Bill has had a substantive Committee stage in the other place. After Committee stage, I am glad to say, the Member who had blocked progress of the Bill withdrew his opposition. Many amendments were extensively debated in Committee. This means that important issues have been explored and explained, and the Minister has been involved and has helped in this process. A number of amendments were actually made to the Bill—some technical but others more significant—in response to representations and suggestions from interested parties. As a result, I believe that the Bill before your Lordships' House is improved, and I hope very much that your Lordships will feel able to send it on its way to Royal Assent.

I would like to acknowledge the many organisations that have supported this Bill. As your Lordships know, the Bill has a wide range of support; this was clear in our debate on 13th May. I would like to thank those who have given their support, especially the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which has worked so hard to help its progress. The Consumers Association has done a lot for the Bill, as also have RADAR, Age Concern and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. When the Government went out to consultation last year, very broad support was expressed from organisations such as the National Council of Women of Great Britain, the British Tourist Authority and the Greater London Association for Disabled People.

A special word about the trade associations is appropriate. The London Private Hire Car Association has been constructive throughout. It is rightly keen to have its trade properly regulated to support the majority of operators who do a good and safe job and make life difficult for the minority who do not.

The London Taxi Board on behalf of the black cab trade, has given the Bill support. I think that it deserves praise for such a responsible approach, especially as not very long ago its attitude was much more ambivalent. I crossed swords with that body 10 years ago. When I was first involved over 10 years ago I felt that it did not appreciate the benefits which regulation would bring. I believe that now it sees much more clearly the merits of the case and the advantages to the taxi trade of having these new controls and enforcement measures.

I hope I have shown that the Bill has widespread support. One can see why. In London taxis have long been regulated by the Public Carriage Office. Outside London both taxis and minicabs are almost universally regulated by local authorities. That means that there are proper checks on vehicles to make sure they are safe to do the high mileage that is expected of taxis and minicabs. There are checks on minicab operators to make sure that they are proper people to run such a business and there are checks on drivers. Above all, drivers are subject to a criminal record check to protect the travelling public from people with convictions for violence or sexual offences. Let us never forget that many passengers will be vulnerable. The young, the old and people being driven alone late at night have all been at risk.

In England and Wales there has been regulation since 1976. The large, glaring exception is the London minicab trade. Here by an anomaly of legislative history there is no regulation at all. It is often pointed out in discussion of this issue that in the morning a man may leave prison after serving a sentence for rape and by evening may quite legally be driving young women home in a London minicab. That illustrates so well the scale of the anomaly and the risk that we face in London. Legislation as a simple matter of public safety is long overdue. At last this Bill gives us a chance to put things right.

In essence the Bill is simple. It aims to introduce for London a system of regulation on the same principles as those that apply to the minicab trade elsewhere. It therefore provides for the licensing of minicab operators, minicab drivers and the vehicles themselves. It sets out the broad criteria which must be met for the grant of each licence, and it provides for changes to be made in respect of those licences. As to who will carry out the licensing and regulatory function, noble Lords will see that the Bill is drafted in terms of the Secretary of State. But Ministers have made it clear that that function will be delegated, as provided for in Clause 24 of the Bill, to the Metropolitan Police so that the work is done by the Public Carriage Office—that branch of the Metropolitan Police which already regulates London taxis. I believe that that makes a lot of sense. The PCO already has the expertise, geographical coverage and accommodation. The London black cab trade is respected worldwide and that is due in no small measure to the firm but fair way in which the PCO goes about its regulatory task. If sometimes it is criticised, well, it is no part of a regulator's job to be loved. I know that it is working hard at its efficiency and productivity.

To go through the main provisions of the Bill in a little more detail, Clause 1 provides the key definitions. Clauses 2 to 5 provide for the regulation of minicab operators; that is, the people who accept minicab bookings. Unlike taxis, minicabs cannot be booked direct with the driver. Operators must be licensed, and to grant a licence the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the applicant is a fit and proper person.

The Bill provides also that the operator's licence specifies the premises used as operating centres. The Bill introduces for the first time the legal concept of a minicab-operating centre, with a requirement that the centre be premises: that is to ensure that there is a clearly identified place with proper records, where proper checks can be made. We surely cannot be satisfied with an operation depending on just a mobile phone on the street.

Clauses 6 to 11 deal with the regulation of minicab vehicles. There is a requirement that the vehicle be licensed; and to grant a licence the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the vehicle is suitable, safe, comfortable, insured, as so many are not now, and does not look like a taxi. It may be tested up to three times a year; it is subject to spot checks; and it must display a licence disc or plate.

Clauses 12 to 14 provide for licensing of drivers. To gain a licence, a driver must be 21 and have had a licence for three years. Applicants must satisfy the Secretary of State that they possess appropriate knowledge of London and topographical skills. They are subject to the all-important criminal record checks. Once licensed, they must wear a badge.

Clauses 15 to 29 make a range of general provisions about licences, including medical checks for drivers, powers to suspend or revoke a licence, and provisions about appeals.

Clauses 30 and 31 are important provisions about signs and advertising, designed to prevent confusion—deliberate or otherwise—between minicabs and taxis. The two are different and will remain so. Clauses 32 to 40 are miscellaneous and supplementary provisions.

I hope that I have said enough in that brief description to satisfy your Lordships that the Bill makes proper, sensible, comprehensive provision for minicab regulation. As I mentioned, there were some substantive amendments made in another place, to which I draw your Lordships' attention.

Perhaps the most notable is in Clause I3, which now provides that the Secretary of State "shall", not "may"—a debate we have regularly here—require applicants for driver licences to satisfy him about their knowledge of London and their "general topographical skills". This was a point of particular importance to the taxi trade, and I am glad that the carefully balanced form of words put forward in another place found favour with the Standing Committee there.

That committee agreed also an amendment in Clause 11 to ban taximeters from minicabs on the grounds that they can confuse passengers, perhaps newcomers to London, into believing that the vehicle is a taxi and that the fares are controlled by the Secretary of State. That is a clause that I queried, because I always thought that meters would be a good thing. It turns out however that if there are meters in minicabs they would be unauthorised and unmeasured. They could be set at any rate, and people might be misled into thinking that they were safe and that the meter was correct and honest when it could be the reverse.

That change was important to the taxi trade, as was the amendment to Clause 31, which I particularly welcome, to extend the ban on misleading advertisements so that minicab firms are not only unable to use words such as "taxi" or "cab" but also words which could be mistaken for them. I suggest that the public do deserve clear, straightforward advertising about the service that they are buying. There must be no blurring of the distinction between taxis and minicabs.

Finally, the committee in the other place agreed to include what is now Clause 5, which provides for bookings to be sub-contracted to operators outside London. This amendment merely puts the law about London minicabs on the same footing as that for minicabs in the rest of England and Wales, and I suggest that it is a sensible piece of flexibility. I stress that bookings can only be sub-contracted to other operators around London who are themselves licensed.

Nonetheless, I know that there have been suggestions that the new clause will in some sense enable operators to "flag out" and evade proper licensing controls. I frankly doubt it; but I am clear that the Public Carriage Office will be on the look-out for that sort of thing, and if it should emerge as a problem, then the Secretary of State could use his regulation-making powers to stop it. The Minister may wish to say something more about that.

That is the Bill in outline, and I suggest that it contains what we would want to see as a framework for effective regulation, to give minicab customers the confidence about safety to which they should be entitled. But I can assure noble Lords that there is one thing that is not in the Bill. There is nothing in the Bill which gives minicabs the right to ply for hire—that is to say, the right to be hailed on the street, to stand at taxi ranks, with the booking being made directly with the driver. The Bill requires that all minicab bookings must be made through an operator. Plying for hire is the exclusive right of the taxi trade. That is the law at present, and it will remain the law in future, under this Bill. It seems right to stress that to the House, and I am sure that every Member present will support that view.

I know your Lordships will want to know about enforcement, a matter generally of concern to Members of this House. No law can count for much unless it is properly enforced.

In some ways the Bill, if it becomes law, will in itself help enforcement. Minicab operators and drivers will have an incentive to observe the law, especially the law on plying for hire, because they will have a licence to lose; at present, sadly, that is not the case. And I do not need to repeat to your Lordships the arguments that I have put before the House on many occasions about cowboy operators who have neither licence, insurance, nor fit vehicle. And members of the minicab trade who keep the law—and that is the great majority of them—will have an incentive to report those who do not, because the law-breakers will be providing unfair competition.

But in addition there will remain the existing Metropolitan Police cab enforcement section, whose job is, among other things, to stop illegal plying for hire by minicabs; and they are of course backed up by all other officers in the Metropolitan Police, who will have their attention drawn to the new law when it comes into effect. Already the police have shown themselves very ready to mount special exercises from time to time, combined with social security and unemployment benefit checks, to check both taxis and illegal plying for hire.

The Metropolitan Police intend to take special steps in response to this Bill. It is envisaged that a special minicab enforcement team will be set up. It will be financed from minicab licence fees, and the job of its members, who will be civilians, will be to check that all the requirements of the Bill are being met. They will be able to make spot checks as well as more routine visits, with all the various powers that the Bill provides. Numbers have yet to be finally determined, but may well be around 20 people. And their full-time job will be enforcement of this new law. I hope that noble Lords will take reassurance from that.

I hope that I have explained this Bill and the thinking behind it. It seeks to end an anomaly—a shocking anomaly some might say—whereby the London minicab trade is totally unregulated. The intention is to achieve that objective of regulation by applying to London essentially the same system as applies elsewhere in England and Wales. In so far as there are differences, they are mainly to take account of representations made by interested parties—notably the taxi trade. Black taxis not only have a special status in London, but are recognised throughout the world as being without equal.

But, above all, the Bill aims to improve the safety of the London travelling public. Minicabs play a valuable role in getting people around our capital, alongside all the other modes of transport. The number of minicabs is estimated at over 40,000—and some say it could be as high as 100,000. I do not think that we can imagine doing without them in London. I think noble Lords would agree that the minicab is here to stay; and that means that members of the public should be able to use a minicab with the same confidence as in all our other cities. "Why should London be different?", people ask. This Bill aims to ensure that London is no longer different.

The Bill has already been thoroughly discussed and amended in another place. It is now right that we should discuss it carefully here. I have no doubt that the Bill well justifies a place on the statute book as an overdue public safety measure. I ask your Lordships to grant this Bill a Second Reading.

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

2.40 p.m.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow immediately upon the speech of the proposer of the Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, because I am most supportive of it. I congratulate her most warmly on taking over the baton from Sir George Young, who piloted the Bill through another place. Most of your Lordships are well aware that for many years the noble Baroness has taken a considerable interest in the subject. She must be pleased today, but she will be even more pleased when the Bill passes into law in a short time.

The undoubted need for the Bill arises from the anomaly—the noble Baroness used that word—that London alone among our major cities continues to have a substantial but entirely unregulated private car hire sector. It is particularly anomalous when London's regulated black cab system is the envy of the world in terms of safety, efficiency and value for money. The scandal of the private car hire, or minicab, sector in London arises from the serious risk of the unknown. The risk may come from only a minority, but it is a serious risk because when one gets into a minicab the vehicle may be unsafe, the driver may be incompetent, if not worse, and there may be no valid insurance to cover the risks.

I live in London during the week but do not keep a car in London, so I naturally use all forms of public transport, including black cabs and minicabs. I shall not be tedious and recount to your Lordships tiresome experiences with minicabs. They were recited by many Members in another place and no doubt we all recognise them. However, I have a personal interest in the successful passage of the Bill.

I take part in the debate because I also have a long-standing professional interest in regulation as an aid to consumer protection—in this case, passenger protection—and in the preservation of competition, which can be inhibited by overregulation. Sometimes the two can conflict with each other. I am always wary of regulation which limits entry into a particular market because that may reduce supply unduly and it may also raise prices.

One must generalise and one might be wrong in particular instances, but I understand that prices charged by minicab drivers are relatively low. I often have the peculiar experience at the end of a journey when the driver asks, "What do you think is a fair price?". When one asks how much the drivers are charging they leave it to the customer. In any case, they do not seem to expect a great deal.

I am not one of those who is automatically against part-timers and, if you like, moonlighters, who wish to use their own car to pick up a bit of extra cash as well as picking up passengers to take them from A to B. Just because they are part-timers, they are not necessarily people who should be barred from the trade.

Therefore, I am glad that the Bill, for example, does not place a limit on the total number of vehicles that may be licensed. That would indeed be anti-competitive. I welcome, too, the assurances that were given in another place by the Government that the licence fees will not be excessive. I am glad that there will be so-called grandfather rights exempting established minicab drivers from the new provision to have appropriate topographical knowledge of London as required, as the noble Baroness explained, by Clause 13.

Indeed, we all know those stories of how hopeless drivers are about knowing where, for example, Trafalgar Square is or other key parts of London. But I hope that the reference to appropriate topographical knowledge, which has no doubt been put into Clause 13 very carefully, is not interpreted too stringently. After all, if one is a minicab driver in Shepherds Bush, then I agree that that driver should have adequate topographical knowledge of that area and how to get from Shepherds Bush to a number of key places—the airport, central London and so on. But surely it is not necessary that he should have a detailed knowledge of the side streets of Hampstead or Hackney. It seems to me that we must be careful not to overdo the requirement in Clause 13.

On the same theme of enhancing competition, I echo Sir George Young when he expressed concern at Second Reading in another place at the lengthening time it has been taking for potential black-cab drivers to acquire the Knowledge and the severe shortage of examiners. It is all very well for those who are already in the black cab trade but it is an unjustified barrier to entry for those potential drivers who wish to enter the market and compete. Moreover, it is certainly not in the public interest.

The noble Baroness mentioned, in terms of praise and understandable support, the way in which the black cab trade has changed its mind over a period and has come to support this Bill which licenses the private hire sector. I keep in the back of my mind some suspicion about that. Indeed, I detect certain signs—and there may be worries in the future as the detailed regulations come forward from the Public Carriage Office and so on—of the black cab trade being just a little too influential concerning the details of the Bill.

I cite the example which the noble Baroness gave; that is the way in which Clause 11 was amended in another place. As she pointed out, it was amended to forbid the equipping of private hire vehicles with meters on the grounds that a meter might confuse people into thinking that the vehicle must be a taxi. But meters provide evident consumer protection. There is or could be a degree of reassurance if a meter were allowed to be installed. Although it may not record amounts which have been approved by government or some other body, nevertheless it gives an indication, as the vehicle goes along, of what the fare is likely to be at the end of the journey, whereas at present and into the indefinite future, because meters are to be forbidden into the indefinite future, unless agreement is reached at the beginning of the journey—and that agreement would be oral in any event—a passenger will not know until the end of the journey what the fare will be. That is unless you are lucky, as I have mentioned I have sometimes been, and the driver leaves it to the passenger to suggest the amount.

Because it is so difficult to talk about the private hire trade without referring to black cabs, and because the two sectors will be brought closer together in terms of regulation—and it is the whole purpose of the Bill that they will both be regulated, respectable and will both have certain rules attached to them in relation to the drivers, the vehicles, insurance and so on—a long-term question inevitably arises. I leave it unanswered and in the air, but the question is for how long the black cab monopoly of the right to ply for hire will be justified.

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I should also like warmly to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and particularly Sir George Young and his cross-Party co-sponsors in another place on this Bill. It is of course an anomaly that London minicabs alone are not required to be licensed. That anomaly is rightly now being corrected, and indeed the correction is overdue. It is a matter of extreme concern on public safety grounds that last year 67 people were assaulted and there were 18 rapes in minicabs. It is a matter of particular concern to women and the elderly. The elderly are often sent home from hospital in minicabs.

The residents of London overwhelmingly support this measure. It is also supported by a large number of organisations, as the noble Baroness said. I shall not reiterate the list she gave, but perhaps I might just mention the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which has played such an important role in campaigning for safety. I should like to note the helpful and supportive role of the London Private Hire Car Association and broadly, bodies, representing the black cab trade, whose support is particularly welcome.

With such a range of support, one would have expected the Bill to have a relatively smooth passage. Many citizens unfamiliar with the arcane rituals of parliamentary procedure will have been surprised by the near-success of the maverick Mr. Eric Forth, a self-styled campaigner against bureaucracy, in attempting to sabotage the Bill. They may also perhaps be puzzled by the slowness of the Government in acting to overcome these manoeuvres by perhaps taking over the Bill themselves. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I express pride in my colleagues in the other place, led by London Members such as Simon Hughes, Jenny Tonge and Tom Brake, who through their pressure—such as an Opposition Day Motion—succeeded in persuading the Government to take the necessary action to set up a Standing Committee. As the noble Baroness has just mentioned, this meant that the Bill has been examined in detail in the other place.

As the noble Baroness said, the Bill represents the setting up of a regulated two-tier system and not the first step towards a one-tier system, although history may prove me wrong. The principal difference between black cabs and minicabs is, and I think will remain, the ability, or not, to ply for hire. It represents healthy competition between on-street hiring and personal booking. London taxis are special. Their drivers' Knowledge is unrivalled and I believe that we should maintain and enforce that distinction.

I am unstinting in my admiration for London taxis, and my experience of living in Brussels for seven years just increased my admiration. I am concerned that a high proportion of the recorded assaults may have been when the ride began in the illegal hiring of a minicab on the street; and so enforcement must outlaw this. But unstinting as my admiration is for black cabs, they can by no means meet all needs. As someone who has always lived north of the river I have never suffered the "big freeze" from a cab driver reluctant to go south of the river, but anecdotal evidence of that abounds.

Less than one-tenth of black cabs operate exclusively in the suburbs and even in the inner city people who want to go to a station, an airport or a hospital would generally choose a minicab for the convenience of going door-to-door at lower cost. The segmentation of the market will, in my opinion, deepen. On the one hand, licensing of minicabs will allow enforcement to be tightened to stop illegal hiring and touting, thus preserving the exclusive right of black cabs to ply for hire. On the other hand, the reassurance that would come from the licensing of minicabs may tend to reverse the trend for the telephone ordering of black cabs which, it must be said, can be frustrating as an individual. Since so many of them are linked into company contracts, one can get pushed to the back of the queue as an ordinary mortal, a second-class "cash customer".

I am glad that the black cab industry has broadly supported the Bill because I believe that the high quality of the service will ensure a thriving market. But no doubt it will take the opportunity to modernise its own industry. Like the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I too have learnt that there are apparently only five examiners to test the Knowledge in the Public Carriage Office, which comes under the supervision of Scotland Yard. That is why it takes two to three years to pass the test. I am sure that there is no suggestion of an informal quota being enforced by limiting entrance artificially, but merely—and regrettably—a tale of inefficiency. It needs dealing with, and perhaps the introduction of fees for tests would enable staffing to be increased.

Rules must be a sensible balance between the need for safety and unnecessary over-regulation. I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said in that respect. It must be about a balance between preventing unfair competition and unreasonable protection of a monopoly or barriers to entry. I believe that the Bill is sensibly drawn in leaving flexibility for regulation to evolve.

I shall not go into great detail, partly because this is the Second Reading of the Bill. However, I have a few points to make. I have a query about the situation as regards criminal records. On topographical knowledge, I note that the wording of the clause was changed to incorporate the word "may" instead of the word "shall", but for criminal records the applicable word is "may". We recently had a debate on Scottish tuition fees regarding the difference between a strong "may" and a "shall". None the less, I remain unclear on the matter. In the other place, the Minister for Transport in London said in Committee that it was intended to make criminal record checks on applicants, including renewals. I took it that she meant every applicant, but the word "may" in the clause leaves that rather unclear. I cannot see how that wording guarantees a systematic, mandatory check for criminal records. I also understand from the background documents that the Private Hire Board says that a criminal record check takes from six to eight weeks, which seems a rather unreasonable length of time.

I agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, about the test for topographical knowledge for minicab drivers. It should be relatively "light touch"—for example, a knowledge of major routes, major land marks, together with the ability to read an A-Z for the detail; not, of course, as one drives along, but to obtain the precise detail of, say, the side streets of Hampstead or Hackney. As the noble Lord put it, the crucial word is "appropriate".

On distinguishing marks, I understand the concern that minicabs should not carry signs that attract the public so that people can wave the cabs down in the street. However, enforcement officers need to be able to recognise a minicab. I understand that one suggestion is that a distinguishing plate should be placed on the back of the vehicle. That seems to me to be sensible.

As regards the identification of private hire vehicle minicab offices, I am not sure that I have entirely understood the provisions in the Bill about signage. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether the offices are meant to be unmarked. Is it not reasonable that customers should be able physically to call at a minicab office? Indeed, if one finds oneself in an area at, say, one or two o'clock in the morning and there are no black cabs on the streets, the only way to get transport is to go into a minicab office. Therefore, I assume that they will be able to be identified.

I have a question about door locks. My attention was drawn to the danger of these locks, which prevent passengers escaping when threatened, by an article in the Evening Standard a year or so ago. I have been unable to trace the article but, from memory, I recall that there was concern that when black cabs were sold off as being too old for commercial use they were not always sufficiently altered in appearance and markings so as to alert customers to the fact that they were no longer licensed cabs. There had been a number of apparent sex attacks in black cabs, but the suspicion was that these were—and I am glad to say this for the sake of the reputation of black cab drivers—more likely to be bogus cabs driven by criminals who had acquired former black cabs and managed to deceive customers.

The relevance of locks is that the driver of a black cab is able to keep the doors locked by his use of the foot pedals. That is usually a sensible precaution but it is potentially a rapist's charter. I am glad to learn from remarks made in the other place by Mr. Clive Efford that there is a London Taxi Board code of conduct on the decommissioning of taxis which has been supported by the Minister for Transport in London. That would appear to take care of decommissioned black cabs. I am not sure what the position is as regards the locking of doors in black cabs in service, although as I say most black cab drivers are perfectly reliable.

My concern with minicabs is child locks. Saloon cars often have child locks to prevent back seat passengers from opening the door. I do not expect all the detail of the Bill to be discussed now, but will the regulations take into account the potential dangers of this situation, especially for women? It could be frightening to be unable to get out of a vehicle when the driver controls the opening of the doors.

As regards the regulatory authority, it seems sensible to envisage the Greater London Authority taking over in due course both black cab and minicab regulation. I understand the Government have concluded that the GLA would be a good candidate for the role of regulatory authority. Perhaps that could be considered as part of the GLA Bill expected in the Autumn. In any case it is entirely fitting that the ending of this longstanding anomaly of unregulated minicabs in our capital city will coincide with London getting back a measure of self-government within the next year or so. Those responsible for this Bill's progress deserve the warmest congratulations.

3.1 p.m.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for keeping us up to speed on this Bill. I commend the Government. I think the Bill is timely and it is what is needed. I cannot claim any great expertise in either the private hire car or London taxicab business, but for many years I have been a director of a British traffic management and traffic systems company. Obviously private hire cars and the use of taxicabs has been studied by that company.

I make no bones about the fact that I support the London taxicab service. I have used it for many years. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said, after seven years in Brussels we all know that we have an élite taxi service that you can trust. You can trust the drivers, who know where they are going. All of your Lordships have been in cities all over the world where you meet an extraordinary chap calling himself a taxicab driver and you end up telling him where to go with a map of the city on your knee. Our black cab drivers know their business and they have to work for it.

My problem with several areas of this Bill is that I am not as confident of the enforcement side as the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. I believe that in both Houses we are awfully good at initiating good Bills, and particularly in your Lordships' House at improving them, but we are always rather weak on enforcement. I believe this Bill will need considerable enforcement. The subversives and the pirates will still be out there. On that point I ask the Minister, of this £4 million that is mentioned in the explanatory memorandum, will that be mostly for paperwork to get all this going, or is provision made to give the police the support they need? We ask so much of our Metropolitan Police Force. Here is another major enforcement job that will need to be examined and progressed.

I wonder, too, whether there are other areas of enforcement where even traffic wardens might come into the picture and support the constabulary. Will the Minister tell the House how enforcement is to be done on the streets? As I say, our police have a great deal to do, and particularly at night—that is the time when those who are not properly licensed will ply their trade.

We are slightly diffident as regards enforcement. We have not been very clever at getting the 200, 300 or 1,000 cars that are unlicensed and have no MOT off the roads. In this House yesterday we talked briefly about how we enforce speed limits. I should like some further explanation. I am not knocking the Bill. It is a very good measure.

There is an area of possible disagreement that I may have with the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I refer to Clause 13. I do not think that we need to cross swords over it. I should be much more vigorous in my topographical interrogation of the man or woman who wants to ply a hire car. They must know where they are going. If they are stopping at corners, causing nonsense at traffic lights, looking at an A-to-Z with a torch in the dark or whatever, that is not good for the system of traffic in our cities.

I suggest that there is no point in the would-be private hire car driver being interrogated by a civil servant, great though he may be, who probably travels into London by train every day from the outskirts of Surrey or Sussex. I should say that this is a good job for a retired black-taxi driver. This is an area where someone with real experience of the streets of London, day and night, has a role to play and would be of great help to the Government and the police.

The other day I was absolutely overcome when I accepted an invitation, together with my wife, from some 200 London black-cab drivers to see what they do once a year for disabled veterans. While we were there, we saw a large number of black-cab drivers helping disabled children by giving them a day out. I do not see that same sort of patriotism among minicab drivers. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said that they will be respectable. The private hire car driver has to work very hard to become respectable and part of the true London scene so that he can equate with the good works of the black-cab driver.

This is a good Bill and it should be supported. I wish to raise only one other small point. It was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. It is the question of door locks. It is true that a girl on her own might want to get out of a cab. However, I assure noble Lords, having a daughter who has used minicabs, that she does not want someone else to be able to get into the cab while she is the only passenger. The questions of locking, the insurance of the passenger and everything else need more consideration.

In our family, we have a man on the end of a telephone whom we call "Joe the Taxi". He is a black-cab driver with some 20 or 30 years' experience. My family and I have found that he is unsurpassed, as are all his fellows. I have to tell the House that it will be some time before I use the new private hire cars. I believe the black taxicab is the finest thing we have for that kind of business in London and I shall continue to use it.

3.10 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, again it gives me great pleasure to take part in the Second Reading of the Bill and, particularly, to congratulate my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, as well as the Government, on their prompt action in taking it on.

My interest in London private hire cars has been long and is not pecuniary. It may be argued, as many noble Lords have said this afternoon, that black taxis provide a superb service, with the advantage that they can ply for hire and thus be hailed in the streets. However, this service comes at a price and it is one that most Londoners cannot afford.

Private hire vehicles which must be booked in advance provide an alternative and affordable service. The growth of this transport sector in recent decades has been truly astonishing and is adequate testimony to its popularity. It is estimated that there are at least 40,000 minicabs; I believe my noble friend said that there could be 100,000 operating in London. The 40,000 could well be an underestimate. If we accept it, the value of the sector can clearly be shown. I am reliably informed that the average minicab does at least 10 jobs each day. If it were working for only five days each week, which may be a conservative estimate, the total number of journeys each week would be 2 million. Surely that is a major contribution to public transport in London.

In bringing this sector into regulation for the first time, we must not undermine this valuable contribution by an excessively bureaucratic approach. In introducing controls which will get rid of the cowboys in the sector—which my noble friend also mentioned—we must not over-legislate. Cowboy operators do pose a risk and it is right that they should be driven out, but there would be a substantial risk to the public if no suitable transport option were available to them at a time of need.

The Bill is needed both to bring London into line with the rest of the country and to ensure by appropriate regulation that passengers are carried in safety to their destination when they use minicabs. I support the Bill, but I have two concerns that I should like to share with your Lordships.

I think it was implied, if not stated, in the Committee stage of the Bill in another place that testing of private hire vehicles would become a responsibility of the Public Carriage Office, as is already the case with black taxis. The present PCO test facilities which I have seen recently are too limited to cope with upwards of 40,000 additional vehicle inspections twice or three times a year. We do not need a large bureaucracy to supervise such inspections when there already exists a tried and trusted mechanism in the longstanding arrangements for private car MOT tests.

There is a network of competent garages, adequately supervised, ready and able to take on this enormous task of conducting upwards of 80,000 new tests a year. Since minicabs are the same as private cars, albeit used much more extensively, why not use the existing MOT arrangements two or three times a year to ensure that minicabs are fit for the purpose? Private cars carry whole families; so do minicabs. Why should not the MOT test be adequate in both cases? I would welcome some assurance from the Minister on that point.

My second point has been well debated so far. It relates to the extent of the geographical and topographical knowledge to be required of licensed minicab drivers. Drivers of black taxis which ply for hire throughout London are rightly expected to have a detailed knowledge of London without having to refer to a map.

Following on from what the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said, I went to the Public Carriage Office and found it interesting to see the Knowledge being conducted. Potential drivers of London black cabs will only be tested if they appear in a suit and tie; otherwise they are sent home. I cannot think of anywhere else in the country where that would happen. I met one gentleman who was an ex-cab driver who was in charge of the testing. The whole system is to be commended.

Drivers of black cabs who qualify for a suburban badge can ply for hire within a specified area; for example, Wimbledon or Southgate. Minicab drivers generally operate within restricted geographical areas on the basis of journeys booked in advance. It would be quite wrong for the Secretary of State, or the Public Carriage Office acting on his behalf, to require that minicab drivers achieve a level of knowledge similar to that required of drivers of black cabs holding a suburban badge. To do so would prevent many aspiring minicab drivers entering a trade where both the pick-up address and the destination are known in advance. I would welcome some assurance from the Minister on that point as well. I wish the Bill God speed.

3.16 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, introduced this Bill admirably. It is interesting that many of us are repeating certain aspects of the Bill, which is no bad thing. It draws attention to areas of concern. I was greatly assisted in my understanding of the Bill by the London Taxi Board and I am most grateful for its help. However, the views expressed are solely mine.

The failure to license London's minicabs, as has been required elsewhere in the country, is clearly an anomaly, and I am delighted that the Bill will finally remove this anomaly and bring London into line with the rest of the country. No longer will London's travelling public have to make do with a second-rate, unregulated system.

I support the main intentions of the Bill—the regulation of minicabs is, after all, important and long overdue. Safety of standards and service will be improved for all passengers and especially for those who need protection, such as disabled people, women, elderly people and tourists. This legislation will, hopefully, go some way towards raising standards and levels of customer service and satisfaction enjoyed by the London licensed black cab trade.

As the Government develop an integrated transport policy, minicabs and taxis will play an ever more significant role in our everyday lives. They can ensure that public transport is available in areas where other transport providers cannot operate efficiently and, at the same time, provide an effective alternative to the use of private cars. They will also allow people to transfer between other transport termini and reach their final destinations having covered all of their journey by public transport.

It is important, and I am heartened to see, that there are proposals for tests on a minicab driver's health, vehicle, criminal record and topographical knowledge—to which the driver of a black cab is already subject. Minicab drivers must be required to have a working knowledge of their local streets. That is already the situation in most of the large metropolitan areas outside London where taxi and minicab drivers have to pass an identical topographical test. The effects of Clause 13 will ensure that minicab drivers can efficiently carry passengers without reference to an A-Z.

I would like to refer, albeit briefly, to the licensing and testing procedures for minicab and taxi drivers. The reliance upon individual tests of topographical knowledge for applicant taxi drivers means that the process is very slow and drivers have to wait a long time for appointments. The result is that growth in the licensed taxi industry has been held back and it is one of the reasons why people cannot find enough taxis on the street and have to resort to using minicabs.

Other noble Lords may wish to join me in making a personal plea for enforcement. Once this Bill is enacted, without the resources to tackle illegally operating minicabs and those who tout and ply for hire, the same old problem will still be with us, and I hope that resources will be channelled into suitable enforcement. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, may be interested to know that when I was a passenger on patrol in a police vehicle in the middle of one night last summer a vehicle without lights was stopped. It transpired that the vehicle was a minicab with a young lady passenger. The vehicle, among other things, had no lights, faulty brakes, an inoperative handbrake, a faulty exhaust and bald tyres. Of purely academic interest, we could not understand why the passenger insisted on getting another minicab to continue her journey, with the possibility of encountering another defective vehicle, when black cabs were passing regularly. It is the removal of such vehicles from our roads that this Bill will, I hope, achieve.

I feel sure that your Lordships will agree with me that a driver who does so when uninsured is a very dangerous menace on our roads and I hope that, at some stage, regulations will be made whereby minicab drivers are required to have with them, during working hours, their certificate of insurance, thereby facilitating enforcement. Due to some minicab operators currently operating in questionable ways, such a requirement would help to eliminate those drivers operating without insurance.

Many of the amendments made at Committee stage in the other place were important and necessary. The introduction of a clause to prohibit the use of meters was an important customer service requirement and I am pleased to note that it had the overwhelming support of Members of the Committee. Had meters been allowed, drivers would have been able to set the meter at a rate of their own choosing and then justify their exorbitant fares by claiming that the fare rate was set by the regulator. This clause quite rightly outlaws that.

I am also delighted that a clause was added ensuring that minicab companies are not allowed to advertise using the words "taxi" or "cab". This, clearly, would cause confusion as to the service being operated. I hope that Clause 31, which brings this about, will be vigorously enforced. The Secretary of State is also provided with discretion to make regulations prohibiting minicabs from displaying any sign, notices or other feature, and I very much hope that the Secretary of State will continue with the current practice, under the London Cab Act 1973, that prohibits all such material. It is important to prevent the public from attempting to make ad hoc hirings of minicabs, which will remain illegal. By doing so, problems associated with private hire vehicles being confused with taxis will be lessened, thereby reducing the likelihood of touting and illegal hirings. It should be noted, however, that outside the capital, where local authorities have the same discretion, minicabs are often allowed to use extensive signage—but they do not have the equivalent of the London black cab. I hope that my noble friend can confirm that it is the Government's intention to apply the regulations in line with current practice and to prohibit signage on minicabs.

A further area of some significant concern, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is the implications of the new Clause 1. This could allow minicab drivers, licensed in districts outside London, to operate within the capital but without the necessary localised topographical knowledge. This is surely not the intention of the Bill. It is, with the proposed wording, possible for an operator to sub-contract all his work to drivers licensed in a provincial town. This, on face value, would seem to drive a coach and horses through the main principles of the Bill. I very much hope that my noble friend is able to reassure your Lordships that the Government will ensure, within the regulations which accompany this Bill, that sub-contracting to drivers in this fashion will be prohibited. This is, I think, an important point and I hope that my noble friend agrees that regulations will close this loophole.

I support the overall intentions of the Bill and hope that it will lead to the development of a much improved personal transport service in London, which will assist the Government in meeting the aims of an integrated transport policy and which will ensure a safer and better service for those who choose to use minicabs.

3.25 p.m.

The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, I would like to add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. I would also like to congratulate the Government on the part they played in rescuing this Bill from probable oblivion. Your Lordships will know that for many years now I have been connected with taxi drivers and their trade, not just in London but all over the United Kingdom. I am proud to be associated with such a fine, ancient and honourable trade. Naturally, I want it to continue in good health, as I believe all other noble Lords do.

Your Lordships may also know that until recently I was implacably opposed to the licensing of so-called minicabs in London because I saw their licensing as signalling an end to our present system of licensed black cabs and an end of the black cabs themselves. I did not, and I do not, want that to happen. I believe that we still have the finest system of licensed taxicabs anywhere in the world—in fact, they are the envy of everywhere else.

So what has changed my mind? Where on the road to Damascus did the conversion take place? Perhaps it would be more accurate to ask what has happened to temper my attitude about the licensing of minicabs in London. There are several reasons for it. First, I believe that the Bill has been well thought out; secondly, I believe that more than adequate consideration has been given to London's licensed taxi drivers and their future. I do not believe that this Bill contains anything that poses a threat to their livelihood.

However—and it is a very big "however"—there are several matters which must be addressed that I consider to be crucially important if their livelihood is to remain unthreatened after this Bill becomes an Act. I know that it is late in the day on a Friday and that your Lordships are anxious about getting away for the weekend. But this is an important matter which will affect not just 20,000 or so licensed taxi drivers in London but will in time have an effect on other people's livelihoods as well, such as the vehicle manufacturers who make the taxis, dealers, maintenance people and the workshops that service them, not to mention the drivers' families.

I am also acutely aware of the time factor for the Bill itself. Nevertheless, I believe it is imperative that some of these points are fully addressed and acted on rather than leaving them to chance. I believe that our system of licensed taxis in London is far too important a matter to be left simply to chance.

My greatest concern and that of all the taxi associations and bodies is centred around enforcement. I believe that no legislation is worth the paper that it is printed on if it cannot be, or is not, enforced. Quite clearly, additional people will have to be employed as enforcement officers. I am glad that the Public Carriage Office of the Metropolitan Police, which currently controls and administers everything to do with licensed taxis in London, has announced that it intends to employ a substantial number of additional enforcement officers, their costs to be included in the fees charged for minicab licences.

I ask the Minister for an assurance that this matter will be kept under review until the legislation has bedded down, because only then will we know the extent of the enforcement problem and, therefore, how many additional officers need to be employed.

My second concern, which is very much shared by the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association, is that of signage. Several noble Lords have already mentioned the problem. I refer to roof signs and signs painted on the sides of the vehicles. Clause 30, which deals with this problem, says in subsection (1), The Secretary of State may make regulations prohibiting the display in London on or from vehicles (other than licensed taxis and public service vehicles) of any sign, notice or other feature of a description specified in the regulations". I feel most strongly that the word "may" should be replaced by the word "shall". We have yet another "may/shall" situation. The current practice in London is not to allow minicabs to display signs. Could not that be continued?

These regulations will affect not only Londoners, but the millions of people who visit London each year. How can we expect them to recognise the difference between a licensed black taxi and a licensed private hire vehicle, especially if that private hire vehicle is allowed to display a roof sign or have signs painted on its bodywork? Confusion will reign. I ask the Minister seriously to consider the prohibition on all signs on minicabs, except perhaps for the plate on the back which signifies that the vehicle is a minicab.

That brings me to Clauses 5 and 12 which make it allowable for a licensed operator of minicabs in London to subcontract to operators outside London who are licensed under Section 55 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 to accept bookings in London. Nearly all such companies outside London operate vehicles which have roof and bodywork signs all over them. Surely there are more than enough minicabs already operating in London without encouraging yet more.

While I am referring to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, I should add that in many areas of the country outside London where it is applicable, Section 55 is not working at all well. Local licensing authorities and trading standards officers are having a terrible time enforcing the regulations. They simply do not have enough manpower, and many licensed private hire operators and drivers are committing mayhem and are getting away with it. In Sheffield, for example, the city council employed two enforcement officers after adding £30 to the cost of a minicab licence to pay for it. Those enforcement officers made a dramatic difference, resulting in numerous prosecutions and numerous licences being revoked.

The main difficulty with private hire is the fact that numbers are unlimited. When Sheffield City Council did a spot check on private hire operators in the city, it found that 50 per cent. of them were benefit fraudsters. Let us hope that this Bill will have the effect of reducing the total number of minicabs operating ill London. At present, it is estimated that there could be up to 60,000 in London. Good enforcement should get rid of the cowboys.

I hope that I have expressed my concern constructively. I close by once again urging the Minister to consider taking the matter under review so that these and other changes can be made if and when they are seen to be necessary.

3.32 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who has been involved in this matter for a very long time; the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which has brought the issue so dramatically before us over a number of years; Sir George Young, my honourable friend Dr. Jenny Tonge and the other Members who helped to bring the Bill through the first part of its passage into legislation; my colleagues in another place who assisted in ensuring that there was time for that process to take place; and everybody, including the Government, involved in helping to take the Bill, I hope, onto the statute book.

There has been a good deal of discussion during our debate about the differences between black cabs and minicabs. I should like to emphasise a point which was made effectively by my noble friend Lady Ludford, who pointed out that they serve two different markets. Minicabs provide a door-to-door service. It is much more difficult to get such a service from a black cab.

That difference is reflected in the fact that black cabs can ply for hire and their drivers can take the booking. Bookings do not have to be made through an "operator", to use the word in the Bill. That implies a special degree of trust in the driver of a black cab. Everyone respects and honours the role that the black cab has played in London life for as long as one can remember. The black cab has become a feature of tourist propaganda, novels and reminiscences. For Londoners it has become an essential part of city life. But the city is a different place from what it was even when I was growing up. Different people require differrent forms of transport. The minicab trade has grown up to supply a particular market. I believe that this was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. The fact that this different market requires different support is not a reflection on the black cab trade.

We support this legislation on three main grounds. First, it is good legislation in that it gets rid of an anomaly in the law. That is always a sensible thing to do. Secondly, I do not believe that it damages the role of the black cab. My impression from talking to drivers of black cabs is that they would rather their opposition was regulated and had to meet certain standards than have to compete against a totally unregulated market in which anyone could ply for hire at whatever cost was thought to be reasonable. Well regulated competition is fair competition and therefore in some respects it is better from the point of view of the black cab trade.

Thirdly, this Bill is invaluable because it goes to the heart of the need to protect passengers in what has been up to now an unregulated London minicab trade. That is the purpose of the Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has explained. The main way to do that is to introduce a licensing system that is concerned with the character of the driver, the condition of the vehicle that he or she drives and the premises that the operator uses. It is the combination of licensing plus evidence of licensing which is at the heart of the Bill. We on this side of the Chamber support that.

I should like to reinforce some of the queries that have been raised by my noble friend. In particular, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, who is to respond on behalf of the Government, can tell the House how the Government react to the "may/shall" issue in relation to the proposed criminal record check for drivers. That is an important issue raised by the Bill and much will depend on how the Government carry forward the particular clause that deals with it. My noble friend Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham was concerned by enforcement of the regulations. That is also an important point.

I should like to pose two questions of my own. There has been discussion as to whether the operator should be able to have shop front-type premises and minicabs should be obliged or allowed to have meters and external signs. There are arguments for and against all of those matters. I do not propose to go through them now because I do not believe that they are relevant to the passage of this Bill, which I should like to see on the statute book during the course of this Session of Parliament. Can the Minister tell the House whether, under Clause 32 of the Bill, provision can be made by regulation to deal with these issues if it appears that they need to be dealt with? I have looked at the wording of Clause 32 and I am not certain that it enables such aspects to be dealt with.

Secondly, it is all very well putting together a new statute which protects, in particular, vulnerable users of this important section of public transport, but the passenger will still need to know what he or she should look for to ensure that he or she is stepping into a licensed vehicle, driven by a licensed driver, rather than an unlicensed vehicle driven by an unlicensed driver. Has any thought been given to the need to provide good publicity to explain to people what their rights are and how they can ensure that they are acting sensibly when they hire a minicab?

3.45 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, first, on having introduced the Bill into the House, and, secondly, on the extremely clear explanation of it that she gave. It was one of the best explanations of a Bill that I have heard since I made one myself!

As my noble friend said, we debated this issue on an Unstarred Question in May when we did not think that the Bill would ever see the light of day in your Lordships' House. I made what was effectively my Second Reading speech on that occasion, so I do not intend to weary your Lordships by repeating what I said then. Other noble Lords today have already made many of the points that I should have liked to have made, so again I shall not repeat them.

Almost every noble Lord has talked about enforcement of action against illegal touting. In 1996, there were only 98 convictions in London for illegal touting by minicabs on the street. At least that number of offences must be committed every evening of the week in central London. I am concerned that there will now be a three-tier system of cabs in London. There will be licensed black cabs, licensed minicabs, and unlicensed, illegal vehicles touting for business, which will not of course be covered by all of the Bill's admirable provisions. It is essential that more effort is put in by the police to enforce the provisions. I have been in correspondence with the Minister for London. She reminded me that it is the duty of every police officer in London to ensure that the law is not broken. It may not be a matter for the PCO. It is for the policeman on the beat to ensure that that happens. I hope that we can have some reassurance on that point from the Minister. Having said that, I recognise that there is a large unmet demand, especially when the theatres come out, and so forth. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, referred to that point.

One of the problems seems to be—again the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, referred to it—the length of time that it is now taking for an applicant for a black cab licence to obtain his knowledge test. I am told that 30 years ago, with much the same test, it took about six months. It can now take up to three years. I hesitate to be critical of the PCO because I do not know enough about it, but I am sure that there must be scope there for efficiencies to be made and some way of speeding up the process so that some of that unmet demand can be satisfied by there being more black cabs on the road.

Perhaps there should be some restructuring of the fare system as well to enable black cabs to charge a little more later at night, which might encourage more drivers out.

My other point related to Clause 5 concerning subcontracting vehicles from outside London. However, the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, dealt with the point. I seek assurance that it is not the Government's intention to allow subcontracting to be the normal method by which a significant proportion of any individual London private hire vehicle operator bookings are fulfilled. While it may not be strictly comparable, where private hire vehicles are licensed elsewhere in the country by local authorities not all local authorities adopt exactly the same standards. It is not unknown for private hire vehicles licensed by a more tolerant local authority then to work in the adjacent local authority. We should not want that situation to arise as a result of the operation of Clause 5. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance on how that measure will work.

My noble friend Lord Teviot wondered whether the MOT test would be adequate for the testing of vehicles. I cannot agree with my noble friend. As far as I am aware, the MOT test takes no account of the interior condition of a car. It does not make the vehicle unsafe, but it may make it uncomfortable. The public are entitled to a reasonable degree of comfort in a car and not to have torn upholstery, and so on. I believe that a more stringent test than the MOT test would be required.

As my noble friend Lady Gardner said, in the end the Bill had a pretty thorough going over in Standing Committee in another place. I am glad to say that "may" and "shall" were changed on topographical knowledge, a point I raised on the Unstarred Question. I can assure my noble friend that I shall not wish to put down any amendments in Committee. I hope that we may be able to take the Committee stage formally, although I cannot bind anyone else on that.

I wish my noble friend's Bill a speedy passage onto the statute book.

3.47 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I, too, am glad to speak in the debate and to support the further progress of the Bill. I agree with the compliments of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, on the clarity of her introduction of the Bill on Second Reading.

There was a time, only recently, when we had almost given the Bill up for lost. That was the background to the Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and debated here on 13th May when I had the opportunity to speak. But now we find it before us for Second Reading, and I was very glad to hear the support voiced for it from all parts of the House.

Noble Lords will know from what I said on 13th May that I believe that it does indeed deserve such support. As and when this measure reaches the statute book—as we all hope it does; and I note with pleasure the hope of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, that its passage will be speedy—I believe that we shall look back and wonder that it might ever have been thought a matter of doubt or even controversy that London minicabs should be regulated. Let us be clear that all this Bill does is to apply to the London minicab trade essentially the same system of regulation as already exists, and has existed for many years, for minicabs in the rest of England and Wales. It is no more than that.

I am particularly grateful to the London Taxi Board for the opportunity it gave me to meet with it yesterday. It added greatly to my knowledge of the issues involved in dealing with the Bill as expeditiously as possible. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in paying tribute to the reputation of and service given by our black cabs. I know that the point is widely recognised, but perhaps it is worth repeating to show that there is nothing very startling about this measure. It brings into effect in London a situation which applies elsewhere in England and Wales. The question is, perhaps, why the Bill has not been brought forward previously. There have been too many horror stories for far too long about attacks on minicab passengers in London. I am glad that your Lordships' House has shown such readiness to provide a remedy for this gap in the statute book.

Before going further I, too, must acknowledge the role played both today and over previous years by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, in promoting the cause of London minicab regulation. Through her association with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, she has for long been associated with this issue and I am delighted that she has had this opportunity of commending the Bill to your Lordships.

I am also glad to praise Sir George Young for choosing this Bill when he came high in the ballot, and for his enormously hard work in sponsoring it. Thank goodness, it is not a party matter, and I am happy to offer thanks to Sir George for all he has done. I am very glad that the Government were able to give him assistance.

I should make a few points on behalf of the Government. The first is just to repeat, as I said in May, that if this Bill should fall the Government will introduce its own measure as soon as parliamentary time permits. Noble Lords will understand that I cannot be any more precise than that, but the commitment remains. However, I stress that we all hope that that will not be necessary and that the Bill before us today will gain Royal Assent.

I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, that the very thorough examination which the Bill had in Committee in the other place has left it a better Bill. I hope that your Lordships will conclude that it should be allowed to remain as it stands before us today.

It was subject to a number of amendments in the other place. Several of them were technical, though certainly worthwhile for all that, in a Bill which has to stand the test of time. But some others were more substantive, and I believe they show that Sir George Young and Ministers listened with an open mind to representations that were made to them. I know that there were concerns about some aspects of the Bill in its original form. I hope that noble Lords will agree that a proper and constructive response has now been made to those concerns and that the Bill strikes an appropriate balance between various considerations.

On key matters, however, the Bill remains unchanged. It still provides for the regulation of drivers, vehicles and operators, just as in the rest of England and Wales. The House would expect no less. The regulatory function is for the Secretary of State, but I can confirm that it would be his intention to use his powers under the Bill to delegate those functions to the Metropolitan Police, and thus to the Public Carriage Office, which already regulates the London taxi trade, rightly regarded as one of the finest in the world.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, raised the issue of sub-contracting. One amendment made in another place was to insert what is now Clause 5, which provides, among other things, that London minicab operators are able to sub-contract bookings to operators outside London. I know that some concern has been expressed about this.

The first thing to say is that the new provision only puts London operators on exactly the same footing as operators anywhere else in England and Wales, where sub-contracting across a local authority boundary is legally possible. I am not aware that it is a problem elsewhere, and I do not expect it to be in London. It represents only a degree of operational flexibility, to help ensure that customers get a good service. It would be hard to justify a provision for London which was more restrictive than in other parts of the country.

Secondly, I would stress that sub-contracting is only permitted to other licensed operators in England and Wales. The clause is very clear on that. By law, licensed operators must use only drivers who and vehicles which are also licensed, and by the same licensing authority. I am sure that noble Lords would expect no less.

Concern has been expressed as to whether there may be a loophole in connection with Clause 5. But in that crucial sense there is no loophole at all. It wholly maintains the basic principle of the Bill, which is to give minicab customers confidence that they are using operators, drivers and vehicles that are all properly licensed in London or elsewhere. In that way, customers can be sure that the vehicles are safe and that people with convictions for violence or sexual offences have been excluded. That is exactly what Clause 5 achieves.

The present position in London is that the minicab trade is not regulated at all. That must be perceived to be the biggest loophole of all. In Brighton, Birmingham or Preston people who use minicabs have the confidence that a proper licensing system is in force. But that is not so in London. This Bill would close that loophole. The provision of subcontracting merely acknowledges that minicabs outside London are regulated properly and can be used as such.

Nevertheless, subcontracting will be monitored in London. It is intended that operators will be required to keep information about subcontracting as part of the records of each booking which will have to be maintained under Clause 4(3)(b). The Public Carriage Office will check on the extent and nature of subcontracting in monitoring those booking records.

If, having regard to what the records show and other relevant circumstances, it appeared to the PCO that subcontracting, either in general or by particular operators, was going far beyond reasonable business practice to such an extent that it was a cause of concern, then it would consider what action to take. In particular, it would consider also whether to recommend to the Secretary of State that he should consider using his powers under Clause 3(4) to make regulations in respect of licence conditions. The PCO could itself consider whether to use Clause 3(4) powers to impose conditions on individual licences. Both the PCO and the Secretary of State would wish to consider, in the light of all the circumstances, whether the public interest was being harmed.

The question has been raised as to when the PCO or the Secretary of State would use their powers. It is not possible, sensible or even helpful for me to speculate. Everything must depend on the circumstances and at present it would be hypothetical circumstances at that. A problem may not arise. I understand that there have not been difficulties in relation to subcontracting outside London, and I do not think it right to set the rules for something which has not yet happened, which may not happen and where all concerned will need to look at the circumstances if and when they arise.

Nevertheless, it may be helpful if I place on record a quotation from a letter which the Minister for Transport in London sent to the London Taxi Board recently. She said: If the abuse which you fear were to transpire (and I am doubtful that it will) Ministers could if need be take action by way of regulations". I know that that was a concern of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. Therefore, the situation will be monitored. It is far from clear that there will be a problem requiring action on public interest grounds. But there are adequate powers under the Bill for action to be taken if it were deemed necessary. I hope the House will take reassurance from that.

The issue of enforcement has been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. That is an extremely important issue. Plying for hire by minicabs is already illegal, as several noble Lords have noted. This Bill makes no difference to the law on that. The right to ply for hire will remain the exclusive province of the taxi trade. Plying for hire by minicabs will remain illegal and I must stress that to the House.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, that the Bill, when it becomes law, will make a practical difference because there will be an extra sanction against people who ply for hire illegally. In future, if the minicab trade is licensed, then licensed drivers who are caught plying for hire will risk losing their licence as well as being punished for breaking the law on plying for hire. The operators to whom most drivers are attached will also have to explain themselves and if a driver is caught plying for hire without a minicab driver's licence that will be an extra offence with which he or she can be charged.

It has been suggested that the introduction of licensing means that the respectable licensed minicab trade will have its own reputation and livelihood to protect. It, quite as much as the police, wants to see any third tier of unlicensed minicabs firmly put out of business. We can therefore expect that the licensed minicab trade will be keen to inform the police of any illegal unlicensed activity in its area.

The role of the Metropolitan Police was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes and by the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Slim. The Metropolitan Police, for its part, already has the cab enforcement section aimed particularly at illegal plying for hire by minicabs and touting by taxis and minicabs. The rest of the Metropolitan Police of course will have its continuing duty to enforce the law. That can include the mounting of special exercises on illegal plying for hire, as already happens from time to time, involving police officers in plain clothes if need be, to take drivers who are acting illegally by surprise. That, I think, is the sort of action the House will expect.

The new law on minicab licensing will deserve its own enforcement resources. I can confirm that the Public Carriage Office intends to set up a special minicab enforcement team if the Bill becomes law. It may number perhaps 20 civilians, though that has yet to be decided. The PCO will be approaching its planning work with renewed vigour now that the Bill has made fresh progress. Its job will be to check that the provisions of the Bill are properly observed. That will entail not only routine visits but also unannounced spot checks on operators' premises and on drivers and their vehicles. Among other things, this will include regular checks that the operators are keeping proper records of bookings, so that there will be a proper incentive on all those who are licensed to make sure that they keep to the high standards required by the licences. I might add, incidentally, that the PCO intends to set up liaison arrangements with their opposite-number licensing authorities in local authorities around London. Among other things, that may be relevant to issues surrounding sub-contracting.

Finally, I turn to enforcement—the point which was particularly stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara—the issue of the third tier of unlicensed shady minicabs as well as the upper tiers of licensed taxis and licensed minicabs. Let us remember that at present in London, and only London of all our cities, there is no way of telling which is a shady unreliable minicab and which is not. In future, licensed vehicles will be required to display licence plates and licensed drivers will be required to wear badges. Operators' licences will have to be displayed in operating centres. So even if there is a so-called third tier, the customer will be able to see who is respectable and safe and who is not, and so will the police. That is surely a crucial step forward.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, also raised the question of publicity being given when these changes occur so that the public are aware of them. That is a very important point and one to which we shall wish to give great consideration. Other issues regarding safety have been raised. Perhaps I could say that the issue which was raised by the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, regarding door locks on minicabs will be a matter for regulations and there will be an opportunity for consultation. I think the two contributions demonstrated that there is not a clear and unambiguous answer to the point that was raised.

It is important that we also look at the issue which was raised by several noble Lords, the noble Viscount, my noble friend Lord Simon, the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford—the issue of signing. The worry is that minicabs would be allowed to carry such large signs and advertisements that there could be confusion with taxis and the problems as regards the illegal plying for hire. That is just one of the issues that has been raised. We understand that concern, especially as the present law is very restricted on signage.

In Clause 30, the Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to make regulations on signs and notices. Of course, there will be consultation before any regulations are made. I can say now that it is envisaged that the approach will still be generally restrictive. It is also worth adding that the power in Clause 30 can apply to all vehicles and not just to London minicabs. Therefore, any restriction could be quite comprehensive in that it could cover vehicles which were operating in London. I hope that that reassures noble Lords. I can assure the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, that we certainly envisage making regulations under Clause 30.

The issue of minicab offices and advertising was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. Such offices can be identified under the Bill, but what they must not do is to advertise taxi or car services when they only have minicabs. The noble Baroness also raised the question of the Greater London Authority. I can tell her that it is envisaged that the Public Carriage Office will transfer to the GLA and, in particular, to transport for London as she suggested. Moreover, as the noble Baroness also suggested, the necessary provision will be needed in the legislation.

The noble Baroness also raised a point on the issue of criminal record checks and asked whether such checks would really be made. I can assure the noble Baroness that the "may" that relates to criminal record checks is indeed a strong "may"; indeed, it will be standard procedure to make a criminal record check. However, it is just possible that some flexibility will be needed in that respect—for example, for someone who is moving from elsewhere with a minicab driver's licence where he or she has just had a criminal record check. None of us would wish unnecessary checks to be made, but I can assure the House that we see such checks as being crucial.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, suggested that perhaps there were too many minicabs for all of them to be tested at the existing PCO premises in Islington. It is envisaged that the tests will be contracted out to selected garages which already carry out MoT tests for the department. It is hoped that this, too, might be done within 12 months, although it is too early to give cast iron dates for such a full test. Once the licence system is up and running, it is envisaged that vehicles may well have to be tested more than once a year. The Bill provides for that to take place up to three times a year, recognising that these tend to be high mileage vehicles. It is also envisaged that the test will go beyond the basic MoT test to cover, for example, the internal condition of the vehicle—a point raised by noble Lords—so that passenger comfort and safety could be taken into account.

I also recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, that the MoT standard test has served us well for many years. We must beware of over-regulation. I am sure that the noble Lord's point will be taken well into account during the consultation on our proposals regarding the vehicle testing regime. I hope that the noble Lord is reassured on that point.

My noble friend Lord Borrie and the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, also asked about the level of licence fees under the new regulatory regime. Frankly, it is too early to give any firm figures, but I can assure the House that the Public Carriage Office will very much bear in mind the fees charged for various licences elsewhere in the country. I would only qualify that in two ways. First, there is quite a range of fees as charged between one authority and another; and, secondly, when quoting a fee, one has to be careful to look at the time for which the licence applies to attain an annual rate.

I can assure the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, that the need for enforcement and to use resources well will be taken fully into account and kept under review. Topographical knowledge tests have been mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Borrie and Lord Teviot, among others. This issue needs to be carefully considered by the Public Carnage Office. I believe it is not helpful for me to engage in speculation here. However, there will be consultation on what is proposed. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said that we should strike a careful balance here and have regard to grandfather rights of existing drivers. We shall certainly bear that in mind.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has suggested that any knowledge test should not be so unreasonable as to create bureaucratic barriers to entry to the minicab trade, bearing in mind that minicab drivers do not ply for hire on the streets as taxi drivers do. We understand the noble Lord's point. I shall certainly ensure that it is drawn to the attention of the Public Carriage Office so that it can be considered alongside the many other representations that I feel sure it will receive on this point.

Reference has been made to the time taken to pass the taxi knowledge test at present. We understand the concerns that have been raised in this regard, as does the Public Carriage Office, which is already working on improvements and streamlining the procedures while maintaining the quality standards which are so important. We take the point about recruiting examiners. That is an extremely important point which we shall bear in mind.

I end as I began by stressing the value of this Bill. In all its detail it is easy to lose sight of the essential point that it achieves for London that which has already been achieved elsewhere in England and Wales; namely, a proper system of regulation. It is not a novel Bill; it merely brings London into line with the rest of the country on this crucial issue of public safety. The intention of the Bill is to reassure people that their daughters, sons and other vulnerable people are not being driven home late at night by convicted rapists, and that the car they are driven in does not have weak brakes or cannot be properly steered. These are rather stark terms in which to express the issues in the Bill. Elsewhere in the country these safeguards are in place but that is not the case in London at the moment.

I apologise to noble Lords for the length of time I have taken to try to reply to every single point. The only excuse I can offer is that, like the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, I wish to see this Bill, and the protection it offers, on the statute book at the earliest possible moment. I hope that every comment I have made has contributed to the Bill's speedy passage.

4.13 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, we have had a full and constructive debate this afternoon. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in it. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of noble Lords who have taken the trouble to remain here late on a Friday afternoon. I am also grateful to the Minister for her reply.

It was not, of course, our fault that this debate followed the Second Reading of the Landmines Bill which meant that we had a late start. A couple of points have been raised which I feel have not been covered in the Minister's reply. I wish to comment on those points as briefly as possible, bearing in mind that everyone wants to go home.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said he was anxious that people should not be prevented from entering the market. I, too, was concerned about that point. I wondered about the man who just wants to operate a minicab as a one-man affair. It turned out that that could be possible under the Bill. His wife could be the operator receiving the calls at home; they must be taken by some other person. But there is nothing to prevent a single person starting a company that could develop into a large enterprise. That reassured me. I did not want to introduce a Bill that could create massive empires for people who had large groups of cars and eliminate the small enterprise. So I was pleased to know that that was the case.

A point that has not been made in relation to meters is that black cabs must use the most direct route. Therefore a passenger knows that the price on the meter is the minimum charge for the journey. But if a driver does not have the same degree of topographical knowledge, he may use a different route or get lost, and the meter would then be rather out of touch.

I thought that my noble friends Lord Teviot and Lord Brabazon were not in conflict as regards the use of garages that do MOT tests. The principle of using such garages and subcontracting the work is excellent. Matters such as the interior of a minicab would be taken into account. There are certain standards set for black cabs by the Public Carriage Office and the regulations could cover such points.

I found the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, very interesting. However, he said that the topographical knowledge is the same for black-cab drivers and others outside London. That may be true, but it is only in London that an unbelievably high standard in "the knowledge" applies. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said that 30 years ago it took six months to learn. But 30 years ago the road systems in London were rather different. The complexity of routes and one-way systems was not the same. So, while I appreciate that the shortage of examiners may be a feature, there is a far greater degree of knowledge to be learnt; almost week by week in London everything changes.

I wish to reassure the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, who was concerned about enforcement. We are all concerned. However, the noble Earl should bear in mind that there is no enforcement at present. We are looking at a million per cent. improvement on the present situation. The only enforcement that presently exists is a small amount of provision on plying for hire. There is no other protection. I believe that that is why those in the black-taxi trade are no longer opposed to the measure; they see how hopeless the present situation is.

Signage is an issue. It is important that signs should be clearly recognisable on a minicab, and that the person who receives the cab in response to a telephone call knows that the car that has arrived is a minicab. So a degree of signage is necessary. The noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, said that visitors to London might find it confusing. That is true. Japanese tourists found it very confusing, having been advised to take a black cab from the airport, when they arrived to find cabs painted pink, green and yellow. They said, "I'm not getting into that. It must be a black cab", and they did not; they waited until they could find a black one. So visitors are easily confused. There has, therefore, to be sufficient signing, and yet not enough to constitute an advertisement or to contravene the position of black taxis.

I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, for his contribution. The point about door locks has already been covered by the Minister. The Minister was perhaps mistaken in saying that the offices will not be able to advertise "taxi" or "car" on their premises. I think they will not be able to advertise using the words "taxi" or "cab"; however, I believe that the word "car" will be allowed. Perhaps the Minister will check that point in Hansard. Although the technical phrase may be, "licensed hackney carriage", what member of the public will know that phrase? To the public it is a "taxi". What member of the public will say, "I'm ordering a private hire vehicle"? Everyone will order a "minicab" by telephone. Those are the words that people know. They create no confusion, and will be of benefit to everyone.

I believe that the Bill has merit, and that the proper regulation of minicabs is long overdue. I am glad that so many noble Lords have supported the Bill. I ask the House to give it a Second Reading so that London will be a safer place for those who travel and live here, and for those visitors who come from overseas. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at nineteen minutes past four o'clock.