HL Deb 13 May 1998 vol 589 cc1155-66

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will introduce regulation of private hire vehicles in the London area.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I start by giving thanks to those who are speaking in this debate, many of whom have taken an interest in this subject for a very long time. However, it is extremely disappointing that we are having this discussion tonight. The whole issue has boomeranged: it has come back with a bang, and all because of what happened in the other place.

A Bill was introduced there by Sir George Young in January which received unanimous support at Second Reading from all those who spoke. The debate continued for four hours and filled 54 columns of Hansard, so that was no small amount of support. But because of what I would describe as "political mischief' by a particular Member, who was able to throw out the whole matter by saying "Object", which I understand is a procedural possibility on a Private Member's Bill, we have lost the opportunity in this Session of Parliament to bring in immediate legislation to regulate minicabs. That is why we are debating the issue tonight. It is not a question of whether we need the legislation, because we all know the arguments in favour. It is really a matter of how and when it can be introduced.

This is a very important issue. Age Concern, RADAR, the police and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust have all campaigned for this legislation. I have had very interesting documentation from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which also made valid points.

Outside London, of course, minicabs are regulated. Under an amendment to the Road Traffic Bill, in June 1991 legislation was introduced that covered the regulation of private hire vehicles everywhere except in London. Yet, I suggest, in London there are more minicabs than anywhere else in the country. Under that same amendment, local authorities can obtain information from the police about criminal convictions and they can carry out vehicle inspections.

When we think about the alarming incidents that sometimes take place in minicabs, we tend to blacken the whole trade because of the very few real criminals and nasty individuals who have done terrible things to people or been abusive. Most arguments and attacks relate to disputes over fares. However, people are more worried about the sexual attacks, as is the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, of which I am the immediate past president. I have a note from the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, who was my predecessor as president of that organisation, expressing his distress at the fact that that legislation was lost in the Commons.

Many people want to see a change. We all believe that it is essential to make it clear that we value enormously the black taxi trade in London. Speaking as an internationalist, I find our black taxi trade the best in the world. Taxi drivers in Sydney hand their passenger the equivalent of the A to Z and ask if you can tell them how to get to your destination. Here, the knowledge shown by drivers of black taxis in London gives tourists and Londoners alike great comfort and satisfaction because we know that we can hop into a cab and go anywhere we like.

There is no suggestion of licensing minicabs to ply for hire in that way. However, many people need a private hire vehicle on a regular basis but can find themselves in an area where black cabs are not available. Alternatively, they may want to build up a connection over a period with one car hire firm. There are all sorts of reasons why people use minicabs. It is said that there are about 40,000 private hire vehicles in London although there may be between 70,000 and 80,000. It is dreadful that the police have no control over them.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind made the interesting point that minicabs are of particular importance to its members because they cannot flag down an empty cab in the street. With even limited vision, somebody may not be able to see a taxi with its light on. The RNIB also says that in many areas only minicabs are available and that its members use them regularly. I am sure that other noble Lords will have received the RNIB's briefing and that they will raise important points about the difficulties faced by blind people with guide dogs. I am sure that the Minister will be interested to hear such information if she is not already aware of it.

In 1989, I introduced into your Lordships' House a Bill on this matter. It passed through all its stages here, but fell in the Commons. I do not think that its suggestion about local authorities being responsible for licensing minicabs in London was a real starter because local authorities do not want that responsibility. I have visited the Public Carriage Office in the past two weeks. It is a most impressive organisation and is both willing and ready to take on the role of licensing. Its standards of control for black taxis are excellent. Such a system could be applied to other similar vehicles.

Private hire cars range from the most elaborate limousines—we see even stretch limos now—to the most dreadful, beat-up and disintegrating vehicles. When I served as a magistrate, we often saw people who were plying for hire—that was illegal in the first place—and driving unsafe vehicles, uninsured and often unregistered. Passengers had no protection whatsoever. The many drivers who are respectable—I would say that most are—often have regular users who get to know them well. They rely on their drivers and develop very good relationships with them. Those who are not cowboys have nothing to fear from such legislation. It is a question of catching up with those whose behaviour at the moment is scandalous and whose cars are unsafe for passengers.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust reports that the number of sexual attacks this year is higher than last year. That is disturbing because we were all concerned about the bad figures last year.

On 9th March this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, answered a Question on the licensing of taxis. I find it difficult to understand the column numbering of Hansard here because this comes in the eighth volume, but at col. 2. I was very surprised by such an early column number. The noble Baroness said: It is quite wrong that London should be the only city without minicab licensing". Then, at col. 3., the noble Baroness said: I do not think there is any desire to diminish the quality of the black cab service in London, which is extremely good and has highly knowledgeable drivers. It is not necessary in protecting that service to leave unregulated the minicab service, which gives rise to much concern at the moment because of the lack of any effective regulation".—[Official Report, 9/3/98; cols. 2–3.] I know that other noble Lords will raise different points and I do not intend to go on because there can be no argument about the rights of the case, but the issue is when we shall see some result.

On 20th November 1996, the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, said in reply to a Question: I thought I had made clear to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that it is our intention to legislate as soon as parliamentary time permits—after the next election". As it happened, we are not now in a position to legislate. However, the noble Earl continued: We are committed to legislating on the issue".—[Official Report, 20/11/96; col.1259.] I believe that the present Government are also committed to legislating on this issue. As I have said, it is a question not only of "how", but of "when". The black taxi trade is in agreement with the proposals put forward. Everyone considered that when the recent Bill came to this House there would be discussion and amendments. I do not intend to go into the detail of the Bill, but we must apply our minds to passing such legislation soon.

I was going to quote from what the Minister for Transport in London said in the other place at col. 1302 of Hansard, but that is a red herring in that it refers to the question of whether or not there should be meters in minicabs and I do not intend to go into that in detail now. However, at col. 1303, the Minister said: The Government support the Bill. We hope that it succeeds; if by mischance it should not, we shall seek to introduce legislation along the same lines ourselves as soon as parliamentary time permits".—[Official Report, Commons. 23/1/98; co1.1303.] There we are, back to that same remark that was made by the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, about when "parliamentary time permits". I do not think that that is good enough. We want the assurance from the Government on this serious matter that they recognise the need for legislation and that it should be included in the next Queen's Speech—that is, in the next legislative programme. There is such a consensus in favour of legislation that I do not believe that a great deal of parliamentary time is needed. The safety and the interests both of the tourists who visit London and of those who live here and who use its totally uncontrolled and unregulated private hire vehicles are too important for the Government to say that they will leave the matter to one side until some future date.

I hope that in replying tonight the Minister will be able to give the House an assurance that legislation will come forward not just when time permits but in the next legislative programme.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for asking this extremely important Unstarred Question. She has done so ably and in great depth. I find it rather difficult to say anything else, but I hope that noble Lords will bear with me if I repeat a number of matters. The failure of the Bill of my right honourable friend Sir George Young in the other place was both a farce and a tragedy. Although that Bill required amendment, it would have done something to remove the danger and crimes to which the travelling public is subject at present. Legislation on this issue should have been passed years ago.

There is no point going over old ground. No particular political party has been responsible for this. Until now the London Taxi Board and other associations, including trades unions, would not have accepted change. However, there is no point in complaining. You cannot job backwards. I am pleased that all of these organisations have seen a way forward. I do not complain about these particular organisations because presumably they must respond to their members' wishes.

Perhaps I should declare an interest. Although I have no current financial interest, I became involved in the London Private Hire Association at the time that Parliament considered the 1985 deregulation Bill. That was concerned mainly with buses but the Bill contained a clause dealing with taxis. Hence, I have had an interest ever since. Further, most of the reputable private car hire firms have wanted legislation for many years but have got nowhere. Ideally, a Bill would not limit itself to the licensing of private hire vehicles, although that is of prime importance, but would deal also with many other important issues of taxi legislation. If parliamentary time was that tight perhaps a London private hire vehicles Bill would suffice. The Bill's priority must be to ensure the safety of passengers. I believe that last year there were 63 physical assaults on women alone. I understand that the figure is greater this year. This is clearly an untenable position. At present there is no check on a driver's character, health or driving ability, let alone his knowledge of the area. Something must be done. There are many minicab or private hire firms who within limits engage only reputable drivers. Those checks are limited because they do not have access to police records. Human nature being what it is, unfortunately serious offences like rape will always be committed, but that gives no credence to those who permit these crimes. We must ensure that legislation makes it infinitely harder for people to commit these horrible crimes. To a lesser but still worrying extent, many rogue operators draw social security benefits while earning income as minicab drivers. That was one point that my noble friend did not mention. Surely legislation is required to curb that activity.

No legislation is effective unless it is capable of being fully enforced. I was delighted that the Minister in the other place, Glenda Jackson, on Second Reading of the Bill concurred with my right honourable friend that it was desirable to increase the number of enforcement officers. I ask the Minister who is to respond to this debate to what extent the Government intend to increase the number of officers.

Today I had the pleasure of visiting the Public Carriage Office which is currently controlled by the Metropolitan Police. Like my noble friend, I was impressed by the way it worked bearing in mind that it is severely hampered by outmoded testing procedures and regulations. Earlier I asked Questions for Written Answer concerning the costs of running this operation and the number of staff employed. I was amazed to learn that the Public Carriage Office balanced its books from the licence fees paid by drivers. I was equally surprised to learn that applicants did not pay a fee to take the test but paid only for the licence once they passed. That can take years, and some individuals never pass. The Public Carriage Office in consultation with the London Taxi Board is looking at ways to rectify that situation.

Further, as to the testing of vehicles there are bad garages that send in vehicles knowing that they will fail to receive a list of defects and then correct those. No charge is made for that. The test is only for the licence. Although it is perhaps a minor point, if someone loses or mislays a badge the replacement will cost the driver only 15 pence when its actual cost is £5 because it is made of metal. It may appear to be a petty point but all of these matters must be looked into. These examples show that flexible legislation must be introduced quickly to allow the cab trade to continue to grow and meet demand.

In conclusion, I call upon the Government to take the earliest opportunity to introduce a Bill for the licensing of minicab drivers and operators and the updating and improvement of outmoded taxi legislation.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I speak in this debate in order to pay tribute to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Until I stood down as a local councillor, Paul and Diana Lamplugh were my constituents. That is perhaps one of my small claims to fame. Their extraordinary energy, imagination and effectiveness in the area of personal safety are to be applauded whenever one has the opportunity to do so. Diana Lamplugh does not accept being thwarted. I look forward to her campaign to modernise parliamentary procedures. It will probably be irresistible.

The Trust was not the only supporter and promoter of this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has listed some of the organisations. There was almost universal support for the Bill introduced by Sir George Young. I congratulate him on his work and also the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, who has been involved in this issue for a long time. I thank her for bringing this matter before the House tonight.

To me and to the Liberal Democrats it is self evident that the regulation of minicabs in London is an important step and that no one in that trade who is honest should fear it. That point was brought home to me this morning when I heard a report on the radio that Mayor Giuliani of New York was about to face a strike by the cab drivers of that city because of his intention to clamp down on drug offences, speeding and so on. The role of mayor is perhaps a matter for another debate, but I believe that is a useful contrast to be drawn here.

Regulation should not necessarily be a matter of imposing a bureaucratic burden. It is about safety and security and the regulation of the operators of minicabs, the condition of their vehicles and about the drivers. The safety statistics quoted during the wider debate outside this House are frightening. The noble Baroness has referred to the increased number of reported sexual assaults and rapes in minicabs this year compared with the 66 reported cases of such assaults in 1997. We all know that the report rate for such matters is very low.

There is no need to labour the point; it has been very widely reported. People use minicabs because there is a dearth or inadequacy of other types of transport. There are no staff at stations, no conductors on buses and no guards on trains. All of that contributes to feelings of insecurity even if the transport is there.

Minicabs are a form of public transport—not mass transport, but public transport. I hope that the topic will be referred to in the forthcoming transport White Paper. Minicabs and black cabs have a role to play in the transport jigsaw. A degree of cohesiveness in the regulatory framework applying to both must be in the public interest.

I shall not indulge in anecdotes about the problems with minicabs. I agree with the noble Baroness that most minicab drivers and operators are reputable. It must be said that not all black cabs live up to their deservedly high reputation. I met a colleague from the other place at Heathrow Airport. He had taken a black cab from here and had been driven via Northolt to Heathrow. There was a point at which he thought he was being kidnapped. Happily, he was not, but he missed his flight.

In the Second Reading debate on Sir George Young's Bill, there was support from all sides. The noble Baroness referred to the Minister's statement, which continued: If there should be those who hope that the Bill will fail—I do not believe that anyone of good will would take such a view—I cannot, in all honesty, encourage them to think that it will have gone away; it will not".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/98; col. 1303.] I hope that we all support that proposition.

The Minister is on record as having called for the regulation to be in a Queen's Speech during the previous government. I add my voice to the call for this Government to promote legislation in the next Queen's Speech, which cannot be too soon. I add my voice, too, to a call for a review of the procedure relating to Private Member's Bills. I appreciate that it is not for this House to challenge how the other place organises itself. Neither do I think it inappropriate for noble Lords to repeat concerns of members of the public. That is why I refer to the point. The checks and scrutinies which Members of the other place can apply to proposed legislation are important, but whether they should extend to the complete blocking of legislation supported by all parties is another matter.

Minicab legislation, or the lack of it, is long overdue for reform—but so are some aspects of parliamentary procedure. Earlier tonight, I heard the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, refer to the Modernisation Committee set up by the other place, and I applaud the work that it is doing. I hope that it will turn its attention to this matter, too.

Sir George Young said on Second Reading of the Bill that a parliamentary troll might appear during the passage of his Bill and gobble it up as it crossed the legislative bridge. I hope that the Government will prove that that troll's digestive process is defective and see to it that this necessary regulation is brought into law.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for having raised this issue as an Unstarred Question tonight. I am sorry only that we are not instead having the Second Reading of my right honourable friend's Bill, which my noble friend would have taken had it come to this House. Our time would have been much better spent were we debating the Bill rather than dealing with an Unstarred Question.

I do not want to repeat all the good reasons given by my noble friend Lady Gardner and others for having the Bill. It would have had the full support of this side of the House. The danger to passengers of minicabs has been well described by my noble friend and other noble Lords and widely both inside and outside Parliament. But I believe that all the horrendous incidents described have happened as a result of people picking up minicabs in the street from drivers touting—an activity which is of course already illegal.

There is far too little enforcement. I am told that in 1995 there were only 107 convictions and in 1996 that was down to 98. There must be at least that number of offences every night of the week in central London. What plans do the Government have to tighten up on that enforcement, which they could do right now while we wait for the Bill to reappear? I also fear that even when we have legislation there will be a three-tier system: there will be licensed black cabs; licensed minicabs; and unlicensed illegal drivers operating on their own, touting for trade on the streets. Legislation will make enforcement easier, but it is essential that more effort is put into it.

The second issue is The Knowledge or some kind of topographical test. The Bill, in Clause 13(3), provides that the Secretary of State "may" require applicants to show to his satisfaction (whether by taking a test or otherwise) that they possess an appropriate level of knowledge of London. I believe, and I would have moved an amendment to the effect, that the Bill should read "will" require. I am not talking about as extensive a test as black cabs have, but at least a basic test perhaps only of the area in which the minicab is based, if in the suburbs, and a general knowledge of central London such as where the House of Lords is. Many honourable Members in another place supported such an amendment.

I have heard the argument used by the minicab trade that because bookings are made by telephone the driver has the opportunity to check the route before he arrives to pick up his passenger. I am afraid that that is not the case in practice. I have often telephoned for a minicab to collect me from home and given the destination to the company involved. Yet when the driver arrives he does not know where he is going and must ask again for the destination. I believe that the instructions given out on the radio are only to collect someone from an address. The driver is not necessarily told the destination.

Minicabs provide an invaluable service to Londoners and visitors. They reach parts which black cabs seldom reach. I use both black cabs and minicabs, but always a minicab that I have booked by telephone. Black cabs, like red double decker buses, are one of the things which visitors to London most admire. Legislation relating to minicabs is now supported by both the respectable end of the minicab trade and the black cab trade. I have spoken to organisations representing both.

When will the Government introduce legislation? It is too important to be left to a Private Member's Bill and all the pitfalls of that route. Can this be added to the Greater London Authority Bill? However, whenever it is introduced, I hope it will be as soon as possible. Like my noble friend Lady Gardner, I would like an assurance from the Minister that it will be no later than next Session. The Government can be assured of support for such legislation from this side of the House.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I very much share many of the views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and others who have spoken today. The proper regulation of London minicabs is an issue of public safety on which there is understandable concern. On behalf of the Government, I, too, regret the failure of the Private Member's Bill introduced in another place. I am sure that we were all, including the Government, looking forward not only to a full and constructive consideration of that Bill, but also to helping it on its way to the statute book.

It is not perhaps profitable to speculate here as to the motives of the Conservative Back-Bencher who chose to block the Bill in another place.

The background, of course, will be known to noble Lords, and has been set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. Unlike almost all the rest of the country, and alone of all our cities, London has no system for regulation of private hire vehicles—or minicabs, as they are known. Elsewhere in England and Wales, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 has given district councils powers for a proper, comprehensive system of regulation, which virtually all have adopted.

So almost universally there is a system of licensing for the three main components of a minicab system: the operators, who take the bookings; the vehicles; and the drivers. It is a crucial part of this system that drivers should be subject to criminal record checks; that can give the passenger confidence that people with records of violence, or sexual offences, will not be driving them home.

This system of licensing outside London applies to both taxis and minicabs. And, within London, taxis are carefully regulated by the Public Carriage Office, which is part of the Metropolitan Police. So that makes more stark the anomaly that it is only London minicabs which are not properly regulated.

Rightly, reference has been made to the work of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust regarding the London minicab trade and the London taxi trade and the points the trust has raised. Many people and organisations have drawn attention to the need to put right the anomaly which we are discussing tonight. Of course, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, with which the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have both been involved, has done tremendous work. It has worked hard and long for legislation. I pay tribute to its efforts to keep this issue in the public eye.

It is also right to mention the London minicab trade itself, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. It is true that the great majority of minicab operators and drivers are reliable and honest. It is only fair to say that they are keen to do a good, safe job for their customers. It is also only fair to acknowledge the consistent support of the minicab trade, as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said, for effective regulation. The London Private Hire Car Association has been particularly active. The minicab trade is as concerned as anybody about the small number of people who bring discredit on the majority.

I am also glad to acknowledge the welcome support for legislation now given by the London taxi trade, which deserves credit for that support and public acknowledgement, as many noble Lords have said, for the valuable service which is offered by the London black cab service.

With respect to the Government's position, I can only give the same reply as has been given by the Minister in another place. The Government will introduce legislation for the proper regulation of London minicabs as soon as parliamentary time permits. In our London manifesto we said we would consult on the best way to regulate London minicabs. We have already fulfilled that commitment with a consultation paper which was issued last summer.

The responses to that consultation paper have been carefully considered. The Minister, my noble friend Lady Hayman, has made clear that we know it would be right to regulate for London minicabs on broadly the same lines as the regulatory regime for London taxis and for minicabs and taxis outside London. Thus there would be a licensing system for operators, drivers and vehicles. We conclude that the regulatory authority should be the Public Carriage Office who already regulate London taxis. All of that is in line with the great majority of responses which were received to the consultation and I hope that is what noble Lords would see as sensible and desirable.

Reference has been made to the fact that the Private Member's Bill was introduced in another place. I am glad that the Government were able to help with the preparation of that Bill as the right honourable Member, Sir George Young, very fairly acknowledged. For my part I, in turn, gladly acknowledge, across the party divide, the great efforts made by the right honourable Member to take the Bill through. In opposition we criticised him as Secretary of State for not taking action so it is only fair now to give full credit. which is his due. The fact that his Bill had an unopposed Second Reading in another place, after an excellent debate and expressions of support from all parties, only adds to what I recognise tonight is the widespread regret that the Bill was lost.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, raised in particular the important issue of where we go with regard to the enforcement and the regulation within the London area. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, I can confirm that as and when legislation for London minicab licensing is put into effect, the Public Carriage Office envisage the establishment of a special unit to enforce the provisions of that new law. The unit might number 20, though the figure is under consideration and it would be premature to be definitive on the number who would be needed to make it effective.

The Metropolitan Police are already looking at the possibility of enlarging the enforcement section for extra enforcement against taxi touting and plying for hire by minicabs, both of which, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, recognised, are already offences.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, also raised the question of the putting of minicab regulation provisions in the GLA Bill. All I can say at this stage is that obviously, as I am sure he will understand, I cannot give him an answer here and now. But I shall certainly draw the attention of Ministers to what is an interesting idea and ask them to consider it.

The question has been raised of whether the Government could give some of its own time to get the Bill through this Session. I much regret that that will not be possible. I am sure that noble Lords will understand that constraints on time apply in a very busy Session. As speakers mentioned in a previous debate this evening in your Lordships' House, there is additional legislation that we hope to be taking through following the referendum in Northern Ireland.

The important issue has been raised of whether or not testing should be compulsory for minicab drivers in terms of knowledge of London. The London taxi trade looked closely at the Private Member's Bill and called for various changes. I know that the Minister is well aware of those representations and will be considering them carefully.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and to noble Lords who have spoken, for raising this issue today. I readily understand why they have done so, with the regrettable loss of the Bill introduced by the right honourable Member for Hampshire North-West in another place. That regret will not only be felt in Parliament; we have heard how many people outside have worked hard for minicab regulation. I have already mentioned the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the minicab trade themselves and the London taxi trade.

Against that background, the issue certainly deserves the attention of your Lordships' House. For too long London minicabs have gone unregulated. That means that passengers are at risk. Noble Lords tonight have referred to vulnerable groups. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, for offering further information about guide dogs. I am not sure whether the department has all the information to which the noble Lady referred but would be grateful to receive it.

Obviously, particular groups of passengers are vulnerable: women, the young and the elderly. But nobody should be at risk for lack of regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, referred, as did other noble Lords, to increased risk, and increased risk of violence. I know, from my own experience with young members of the family staying in London, the difficulty there is for those responsible for teenagers and young people. They ought to be able to get into a minicab and can do so, in the vast majority of cases, knowing that they will be safe there. It is also important to note that it is not only young women who are at risk of violence; young men may be at risk also.

It has rightly been pointed out that London is the only city where a man can leave prison in the morning after serving a sentence for a crime of violence and be driving a minicab that evening. That is why we have said we shall legislate to resolve that long-standing anomaly.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, will understand that I cannot this evening pre-empt the contents of the Queen's Speech. There are many competing priorities for Parliament's legislative time. However, I assure noble Lords that the Government's commitment to legislate remains and I hope that noble Lords will take some comfort from that reassurance.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before nine o'clock.