New Clause 6 — Immediate suspension and revocation of drivers' licences

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:06 pm on 9th October 2006.

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'(1) Part 2 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles in England and Wales outside London) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 61 (suspension and revocation of drivers' licences), after subsection (2) insert—

"(2A) Subject to subsection (2B) of this section, a suspension or revocation of the licence of a driver under this section takes effect at the end of the period of 21 days beginning with the day on which notice is given to the driver under subsection (2)(a) of this section.

(2B) If it appears that the interests of public safety require the suspension or revocation of the licence to have immediate effect, and the notice given to the driver under subsection (2)(a) of this section includes a statement that that is so and an explanation why, the suspension or revocation takes effect when the notice is given to the driver."

(3) In subsection (3) of that section, after "under" insert "subsection (1) of".

(4) In section 77 (appeals), after subsection (2) insert—

"(3) Subsection (2) of this section does not apply in relation to a decision under subsection (1) of section 61 of this Act which has immediate effect in accordance with subsection (2B) of that section.".'.— [Dr. Ladyman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 7— Abolition of "contract exemption".

Government motion that clause 53 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56. Government amendments Nos. 1 to 3.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I hope that it is not impertinent of me to say thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the ruling that you have just given.

New clauses 6 and 7 deal with taxis and private hire vehicles, sometimes known as minicabs. Both clauses have the same objective: to make travel safer for people who use those modes of transport. Against the background of the Bichard report and the legislation that we have brought forward in that regard, we have considered carefully whether we should use the opportunity presented by the Road Safety Bill to deal with any urgent safety concerns relating to taxi and PHV legislation. The result is these new clauses to deal with two worrying aspects of the legislation that we identified.

New clause 6 addresses our concern about a taxi or PHV driver's right to continue working while appealing against a decision to suspend or revoke his licence, even if he is considered to represent an immediate threat to public safety. The new clause gives local licensing authorities in England and Wales, outside London, a new power which will enable them to suspend or revoke a taxi or PHV driver's licence with immediate effect on safety grounds. That power has been available to the licensing authority in London—Transport for London—for a number of years.

Drivers' automatic right to continue working pending appeal has been a source of justified concern to many taxi and PHV licensing authorities. They want to use their licensing powers to ensure that passengers are safe using local taxi and PHV services. They play a tremendously important role in protecting residents and visitors who use taxis and PHVs in their areas. The new clause will enable them to do so even more thoroughly in some circumstances—for example, when a driver has committed a serious offence or is suffering from a medical condition that makes it unsafe for him to continue working.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early in his speech. He will know that there is concern among private operators who provide special-needs transport because they are subject to enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks, and many are locked into local authority contracts until 2010. Operators in my constituency want to know when the Minister intends the enhanced protection regulations to come into force, because owing to the local authority contracts they are already subject to the checks. I gather that there may be some room for manoeuvre over when the imposition will actually occur. If the Minister could provide any guidance, those operators would be very grateful.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I understand their concern. If the new clause is accepted today, there will be a consultation with all stakeholders following Royal Assent. One of the issues that we will consider during the consultation is the time at which the changes will come into force. However, I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that a key principle on which we shall have to decide when making a decision is the safety of the public. I am sure that he and his constituents would agree with that. There may therefore be a conflict between the interest of protecting the public and the interests of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who have existing contracts. I hope that we shall find a way of resolving that conflict, but if there is no way of doing so, we shall have to come down on the side of public safety. I hope that despite that caveat, and given the promise of a thorough consultation involving all stakeholders, the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that we will listen to his constituents' concerns.

New clause 7 deals with our concern about what is commonly known as the contract exemption: the provision that exempts drivers, vehicles and operators outside London from licensing if the vehicles are hired only under contracts lasting seven days or more. On Second Reading and on other occasions, Mr. Horam expressed concern about what will now be clause 53, which tightens the definition of a private hire vehicle in London and will bring vehicles dedicated to contract work within the London PHV licensing regime.

One of the hon. Gentleman's points was that the clause would be inconsistent with retention of the contract exemption outside London. In Committee I promised to consider the matter, while warning the hon. Gentleman that those who open a can of worms must expect what they are likely to find in it. Having considered, I reached a conclusion—also reached by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Gillian Merron—that was not the one for which the hon. Gentleman had hoped. Our conclusion was that public safety, and indeed consistency, required not that we did not make the provision in London, but that we extended it to the rest of the country and ensured that contract private hire work was licensed both in London and elsewhere. That is why we tabled the new clause.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East

Having sat in Committee, I appreciate how much work had been done on amendments in the meantime. Most organisations, certainly the Scottish Campaign against Irresponsible Drivers, are delighted at the work that has already been done, but one matter has not been taken into account in any of the amendments or new clauses. Will you comment on the fact that— [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend comment on—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I was about to correct the hon. Lady, but she has now corrected herself.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East 5:15 pm, 9th October 2006

The Minister has not taken into account provisions relating to causing serious injury. Penalties for causing death by dangerous driving are often discussed, but another major concern for many people is serious injury caused by dangerous driving.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I will take up those issues as we discuss the various amendments before us. There is a difference between causing death and causing serious injury, and I believe that the provisions dealing with them should be different. I understand my hon. Friend's concerns, which she has put to me before and, if she will accept it, I will deal with them in greater detail at a more appropriate place in our debate.

To continue my discussion of new clause 7, there are no compelling reasons why private hire services provided under long-term contracts should be outside the arrangements for ensuring public safety, which are considered to be essential for other private hire work. The need to ensure public safety remains the same, regardless of whether the hiring is a one-off or part of a long-term contract. For a passenger possibly at risk, the method of hiring is not relevant; what is important is that there is no doubt that all the necessary checks and procedures have been comprehensively and effectively carried out. There are good grounds for removing the contract exemption in terms of ensuring a level playing field in the industry. Unlicensed contractors have a commercial advantage over their licensed counterparts, which cannot be justified.

I believe that both new clauses are strongly supported by those who have responsibility for taxi and PHV licensing.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene so early. Given that we are so keen on the safety of drivers and that we are introducing so many sensible amendments, will he explain why there is no discussion of pedicabs, which are highly dangerous, yet seem to be of no concern to anyone? It is quite possible, if one is bored with someone, to put them in a pedicab.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

It would be wrong for me to debate Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments. I know that some hon. Members tabled amendments on pedicabs, but they have not been selected. However, I know that Transport for London intends to bring pedicabs within a regulatory regime. In my view, the proposed arrangements will be adequate to cover the issue. My hon. Friend may have a different view, however, as she does on so many issues that we discuss.

As I was saying, both new clauses are strongly supported by those with responsibility for taxi and PHV licensing and have been welcomed by many in the industry. They are necessary to safeguard the public and I commend them to the House.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

We agree with the Government on one of the new clauses, but probably not on the other. New clause 6 introduces new provisions into the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. That Act currently allows a local authority or other licensing power or body to exercise the power to revoke, suspend or refuse a licence where the subject is convicted of specific offences or for "any other reasonable cause" that the authority has "grounds" for believing. If I understand the intention behind the new clause, it will allow a local authority or licensing body to revoke or suspend the licence of taxi driver or minicab with immediate effect where it is a "matter of public safety", or on other grounds after 21 days where notice has been served on the driver.

Our question, on which I seek clarification, is this; the Government currently have powers under the 1976 Act to revoke a licence for "any other reasonable cause" and for a "specific conviction." The proposed public safety grounds represent a power that is additional to the Act and it is unclear how this will work in practice.

I assume that a conviction for a serious driving offence would be covered under the specific conviction provision. I assume that a conviction for an assault such as actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm against another road user, a pedestrian or a passenger would again be covered under the specific conviction provision. I assume that driving a vehicle without a valid MOT or in an unroadworthy condition as designated by the police or by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency would be covered under the reasonable cause provision. I assume that a deterioration in a given medical condition would be covered by that provision as well.

If the Minister is willing to tell me that my assumptions are incorrect, I will see the need for the new clause. If so, perhaps he will give me three specific examples where public safety needs arise beyond those already dealt with by the 1976 Act. The Minister made much in Committee about powers that were not being enforced at present, and said that we should not introduce more new powers that were unlikely to be enforced. We need clarity from the Government as to exactly how the new clause will work.

There was substantial discussion in Committee of new clause 7 and the Minister has done what he warned us he would do; he has closed what he described as the can of worms. However, as new clause 7 puts into effect for the rest of the country what clause 53 does for London, is it necessary? The 1988 Act is working perfectly well within London. There are vast numbers of contractors supplying private hire services to councils on a contract basis. They are Criminal Records Bureau-checked and their vehicles are checked and comply with safety provisions, but they are not available to the public. There seems to be no reason for the Government to intervene in an Act that is working well. This seems to be another piece of unnecessary legislation.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous. Were we here today debating an abuse of a vulnerable person by someone driving a private hire vehicle who had not been appropriately checked and who had been allowed to drive because of the contract exemption, I suspect that his argument would be that I should resign my position because I had not taken the opportunity of the Road Safety Bill to close that loophole.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

But as we said in Committee, and as I said in my speech, these people are CRB-checked, so the case the Minister makes does not arise.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Clearly there are opportunities within the process that someone must go through to have the right to drive a vehicle under the contract exemption that might allow someone who had not been appropriately checked to drive. We had this debate on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Orpington said that the need for checks would put his constituent, who had a PHV company that was taking advantage of the contract exemption, at a competitive disadvantage, because he would now have to pay for his drivers to be checked. Clearly there is a loophole. I agreed in Committee to look at the matter and to decide whether, in the interests of consistency, we should close the loophole not only in London, as Transport for London had requested, but in the rest of the country. We took the view that we should close it in the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to cite three examples, but I cannot do so. I hope that nobody will ever be in a position to do so, because we have closed the loophole. Serious questions would certainly be asked if we did not do so. Will the change be a major regulatory burden on the industry? No, it will not. I hope that anybody who has used the contract exemption in the past has checked their drivers and gone through the whole process. The fact that they will now have to do so by law is neither here nor there. It should be no additional burden if they have followed best practice in the past. If they have not been doing so, there will be an additional burden, but I argue that it is an appropriate burden for them to carry.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister is carefully—but not helpfully—intertwining the two clauses. Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 a taxi or minicab driver can be suspended for being convicted of a specific offence or for any other reasonable cause decided by the licensing authority. I would like the Minister to tell us what public safety requires beyond "any other reasonable cause". As yet, he has not told us.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of the new clause and I accept full responsibility for not having explained it. There will be no new powers to suspend or revoke a licence. One would still have to satisfy the grounds for a suspension or revocation of a driver's licence as under the present legislation. The difference is that at the moment if the individual whose licence is suspended appeals against that suspension, they can continue to drive people around while they await the hearing of the appeal. If someone is accused of a serious offence—as serious as rape or some other sexual offence—it would be horrendous if they were allowed to continue to drive a private hire vehicle while waiting for the appeal against suspension to be heard. Under the new clause, when the licensing authority takes the view that the offence is serious, it will be able to suspend the licence.

The argument that was put to us by some taxi drivers was that it might leave them open to false allegations and they might lose their livelihood over a trivial allegation while awaiting the hearing of appeal against suspension. However, in the experience of the use of the power in London, where it has been in place for some time, it has not been abused. Drivers have had their licences suspended pending appeal only in cases in which a serious allegation has been made against them. Given the seriousness of the offences that might be involved, I think that the new clause is a proportionate response to the situation. No driver should lose their livelihood lightly even for a short time, but when someone is accused of an offence of sufficient seriousness to justify the revocation or suspension of their licence, it is appropriate that they should not continue to drive pending an appeal.

I hope that I have at least partially reassured Stephen Hammond and other hon. Members, and that the new clauses will be added to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.