Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 12:30 pm on 4 March 2022.

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Lord Borwick:

Moved by Lord Borwick

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative

My Lords, I first must make my declarations of interest. I am currently the holder of a London taxi proprietor’s licence, as I own a single London taxi and employ a taxi driver. In the past, I spent most of my business life in the taxi industry. I was chief executive and a big shareholder in Manganese Bronze Holdings plc, which manufactured, distributed and financed the traditional London taxi and developed the first mobile phone hailing system in the world, which became the first wheelchair-accessible public transport system. I will always be grateful to the late Sir Bert Massie and a fine civil servant, Ann Frye, for pushing me to do that. Later I was chairman of the company that adapted the Mercedes Vito to make a wheelchair-accessible London taxi. All those interests have now ceased.

The Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill will improve public safety while travelling by these modes of transport. Taxi drivers throughout the country are great people generally. There are quality systems in place in almost all boroughs. This is desirable because the customer, the traveller, is in a uniquely vulnerable position. Passengers are often alone, often away from home in an area they do not know. The customer chooses the first empty taxi plying for hire and has no way of choosing their taxi driver. That puts a burden on the authorities to get the regulation right. In most parts of the world, among the top 10 problems to be faced is the number of complaints about taxis. In London and many other towns around the country, taxis are among the features that a mayor gets compliments about. Drivers are proud of their knowledge and most had a warm sense of achievement when a taxi driver won “Mastermind” on TV a few years ago. Of course, they knew that they could have achieved that prize if only they had tried.

The main focus of the Bill is on formalising information-sharing between taxi and private hire vehicle licensing authorities, specifically safeguarding and road safety concerns identified by other authorities. Ensuring that serious and credible concerns about a driver are shared will facilitate more considered licensing decisions as authorities will have greater access to the relevant facts. As noble Lords may know, the authorities responsible for taxi and private hire vehicle licensing in England are lower-tier and unitary authorities such as district councils. The exception to this is in London, where Transport for London is the licensing authority. These licensing authorities decide whether each applicant for a taxi or private hire vehicle driver’s licence is fit and proper, and that is where this Bill can help.

In some areas, a phenomenon has occurred whereby a driver who loses his licence in one area reregisters with the adjacent licensing area and essentially carries on as before. It would be unreasonable to expect an authority to check each application manually with the other 275 licensing authorities for previous adverse history. So, it is the duty of the law, I suggest, to allow technology to perform this task instead. While the number of bad guys who get a taxi driver’s licence is small, their importance is great because they jeopardise the whole system of regulation of quality.

It is important to note that the Bill would only make more information available to licensing authorities. It does not change the criteria under which licensing authorities make their decisions, nor does it tie a licensing authority into making a particular decision. Licensing authorities are currently required by legislation to keep records of the licences they have issued. They must also make this information available if asked for it, but there is no requirement to share information with other licensing authorities about the licences they have suspended, refused or revoked. There is a voluntary database, the national register of refusals and revocations, known as NR3, which some licensing authorities use. However, the use of this database is far from universal. This means that there remains the possibility that a driver deemed unsafe in one licensing area and who has their licence revoked may well reapply for a licence and successfully hide that decision from a different licensing authority.

I am sure the Minister will agree that this situation is unacceptable, and it is one of the issues the Bill seeks to address by ensuring universal usage. To do this, the Bill would mandate licensing authorities in England to record in a database decisions to suspend, revoke or refuse a licence which are based on specific safeguarding and road safety concerns. For privacy reasons, the Bill ensures that the reasons behind the licensing decision would not be recorded directly on to the database; instead, this information would be held separately by the relevant authority. Licensing authorities would be required to search the database for each applicant. Where an authority identifies a record on the database relating to their applicant, the Bill would require them to contact the authority that made the entry to gather the details of that decision. The authority would then be required to have regard to the information provided. To be clear, the licensing authority would not be bound by that original decision. In fact, licensing authorities can, and undoubtedly will, make different decisions for a variety of reasons. Therefore, a driver’s inclusion on the database would not automatically preclude them from gaining a taxi or private hire vehicle driver’s licence.

The Bill gives licensing authorities access to more information relevant to their decision, which will help them to make the right decision. That decision may be to grant the applicant a licence. As noble Lords will have seen, the Bill builds timescales into that process to ensure that information is provided promptly, so that the process does not unduly delay a driver’s application. The database itself would be designated by the Secretary of State for Transport. This means that the Bill could mandate a database already in use, such as the national register to which I referred earlier. Although the cost of such a database is not expected to be significant, the Bill allows the database operator to charge a fee to licensing authorities to cover the associated administrative costs. The fees can be charged only if the Secretary of State has agreed the fee level.

The other key issue the Bill seeks to address is the safeguarding and road safety concerns an authority may have about taxi and private hire vehicle drivers working in their area but licensed in another. Again, the Bill does not grant any new powers; it seeks only to ensure the sharing of relevant information in a timely manner. As noble Lords may know, drivers can undertake pre-booked journeys in areas other than the one in which they are originally licensed. However, only the licensing authority that issued a driver’s licence can revoke or suspend it. This means that, where a driver is suspected of acting in an unsafe manner in one licensing authority’s area but is licensed elsewhere, the local authority is reliant on the authority which issued the licence to take action against that driver. While it is expected that one licensing authority would act on another’s concerns, the Bill would seek to formalise the process of reporting serious and credible safeguarding and road safety concerns. It would do so by requiring licensing authorities in England to share with the relevant authority concerns they have about drivers licensed in other areas.

The Bill acknowledges that drivers need protection from vexatious or frivolous complainants, but safety is rightly at the heart of the Bill, and drivers must be able to continue to earn a living where it is safe for them to do so. To achieve this balance, the concerns would have to be related to safeguarding or road safety concerns, as set out in the first clause of the Bill. The concerns would have to be serious and credible enough that the licensing authority would have considered suspending or revoking the driver’s licence were they one of their licensed drivers.

Where a licensing authority in England receives a safeguarding or road safety concern from another authority about a driver it has licensed, the Bill would require it to consider whether to suspend or revoke the licence. The authority must make its decision and inform the reporting licensing authority within 20 working days of its reasons. This would provide important clarity and consistency for licensing authorities on the action they must take when concerns are raised about a driver licensed in another area.

It might be said, as is so often, that this Bill should have progressed many years ago. Noble lords may surprise me and the Minister with some analysis which reveals a flaw we have not spotted. I am not sure that I look forward to that—but we are told that there is no room in the legislative agenda for amendments to the Bill and that, if any are promulgated, it will fail. That would be a shame.

The point has been made that there are several other ways in which the taxi industry can be improved by further legislation. My honourable friend in another place, Nickie Aiken, the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, has done great work on trying to solve the problems of pedicabs in London. Alas, this Bill is not the place to achieve that. The Bill has had widespread support in another place. It was first proposed by Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP for Cambridge, and this particular incarnation was proposed and delivered by my honourable friend Peter Gibson, the excellent MP for Darlington. Perusal of Hansard reveals the enormous amount of work he did to progress it. On this lonely Friday afternoon, I hope that we in our House can do justice to the aspiration outlined by Peter Gibson to help travellers in his constituency and elsewhere.

The Bill should be seen for what it is: a vital next step to improve public safety when travelling. It does not grant new powers but, through sharing of relevant information, it makes better use of those which exist. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 12:43, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a disabled person who uses an electric wheelchair. I have used taxis across the United Kingdom. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, Peter Gibson MP and, before him, Daniel Zeichner MP on this Private Member’s Bill, which will make a key improvement to the experience of vulnerable passengers and to how licensing authorities can keep them safe. I shall focus on two areas: passengers assaulted by drivers, and disabled people refused a service by drivers despite the requirements under the law.

Assault by a driver is a very serious offence. Drivers are in a position of trust but too often there are incidents that have placed passengers at risk, or worse. I am sure Members of your Lordships’ House are aware of the cab driver John Worboys, who received two life sentences for a number of rapes and assaults: it is now believed he committed more than 100 offences against women using his cab to trap them. More recently, a predatory London private-hire driver raped a passenger and sexually assaulted two other women, and in 2019 police were looking for a London taxi driver who allegedly assaulted a passenger by braking excessively and causing them to fall off their seat during an argument in his cab.

I now turn to disabled people. Watford Borough Council—my local council— has an excellent public notice on the legal rights of disabled passengers using taxis and minicabs, which followed a series of complaints that drivers were refusing to take disabled passengers. It then surveyed disabled passengers and ran a mystery-shopper exercise to test the system. It was shocked at the results, but I am not surprised.

My own experience occurred about five years ago after leaving your Lordships’ House one cold winter’s evening. I live one mile from Watford station, and I arrived after 11 pm. My wheelchair battery was too low to get me home and it was sleeting. There were two wheelchair-accessible taxis in the queue, and both refused to take me, the first saying that he did not want to get out of his cab and get cold and wet, and the second saying that it was not worth it for such a short journey. There were no other accessible cabs available. One of the other drivers remonstrated with these two, who just refused to help, and I had no option at that hour but to go home, very slowly, pausing for long periods to try to preserve the battery life. It died around 250 metres from home, and I then had to get out—luckily, I can walk—and I had to push my big, 90-kilogram chair home. I am sorry to say that my experience of being refused a journey was not unusual, and I have travelled around the UK relying on taxis that frequently ignore the law. I am looking forward to hearing the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, who may well have similar experiences where guide dogs have been refused.

Watford Council’s problem is that these drivers were not licensed by their own authorities, for reasons set out very helpfully in the briefing from the Local Government Association. Can the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, tell us if the breaching of the law on taking disabled passengers is enough to qualify for this Bill? I am rather hoping that it is.

The wider safeguarding issues relating to drivers who assault or threaten passengers, which I raised at the start of my speech, are equally important: every other part of our lives aims to provide safeguarding practice to prevent people who are known to provide a risk to the public from being put in positions of trust. The reporting of drivers of concern has not kept pace with the lifting of restrictions for taxis plying for trade, which used to do so only in their licensing areas. This Bill will change that. A duty will be placed on local authorities to report serious safeguarding or road-safety concerns relating to a different council that has licensed that driver. I particularly want to see a formal—not voluntary—central register of drivers who are thought to be a sufficiently credible and serious risk that would put the driver at risk of having their licence suspended or revoked, or who have had their licence revoked, to prevent drivers trying to play the system, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick.

This Private Member’s Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, will close this loophole; but I also agree with the LGA’s proposal that the Department for Transport should bring forward a taxi and private hire vehicle licensing reform Bill to replace all the current outdated legislation and to modernise the licensing system for taxis and PHVs. This is vital for both passengers and drivers. I recognise, however, that this is not a matter for today, and I support this Bill’s clear and limited aims, and wish it well in its passage to becoming law.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative 12:48, 4 March 2022

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this Second Reading. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Borwick and Peter Gibson MP on getting us to this stage. I will not, in any sense, spare my noble friend’s blushes: what he did for accessibility of all London taxis is as much as anybody has done positively for accessible transport. It made a difference to this capital; it made a difference to transport; it made a difference to accessibility right across this country and right around the world. International cities look to London and what he—and thus we—did, and it is an absolutely fabulous testament to his work that this was achieved. What is my noble friend the Minister’s view on where accessibility is likely to go in London if we do not hold strong to that which the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, set in place so many years ago?

I support the Bill, which is clear and concise. It is about safety, and that has to be a thoroughly good thing. Cabbies are a cornerstone of communities up and down this country, carrying in passengers’ shopping and looking out for people. The most striking example is that it was local cab drivers who first alerted the authorities to the horrors of Harold Shipman.

I have two brief questions for my noble friend the Minister. First, where are the Government on having a national database, which could be built on new technologies such as distributed ledger technologies so that it could operate in real time, be immutable and, in this sense, be a thoroughly positive force? Secondly, how quickly can drivers who are mistakenly put on the current register, for a number of reasons, address and correct those details?

As we are talking taxis today, I take the opportunity to go a little wider, first on issues of accessibility. What data do the Government gather on how often disabled people are refused from taxis? I have certainly had the experience, in London and across the country, of being refused service when travelling with my guide dog. Here is the thing: it does not matter how many times it happens; when you experience refusal and discrimination, it is not a cerebral experience—you feel it in your heart and your gut.

Secondly, I turn to some of the things that seem to be happening with so-called shared space. Is it sane, consistent and coherent for taxis to be excluded from areas where buses and cycles are allowed to go? I cite Tottenham Court Road in London, where cabs are not allowed for the vast majority of the hours of the day. How can I and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, get to meetings in areas such as Tottenham Court Road? Cabs are banned from Bank Junction but buses and cycles are allowed through. Cabs have never been involved in an accident at Bank Junction. As my noble friend is the Minister responsible for TfL, I ask her to lay out what exactly is going on.

Across London boroughs, roads are similarly closed to cabs. In Kensington and Chelsea it is fine—you can get around the borough in a cab, no problem. In other London boroughs, roads are closed to cabs but available to buses. How can it be that those roads allow a diesel bus but not an electric cab?

Further, what is the public policy situation? Why do we not cherish our cab services up and down the country, as we should? Why do we not see them more clearly in public policy as an absolutely key part of public transport?

I support the Bill, which is good for safety, disabled people and all people. Hail taxis!

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 12:53, 4 March 2022

My Lords, what a pleasure it is to follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on this topic. First I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on sponsoring and leading on the Bill, as well as his honourable friend in another place Peter Gibson and my honourable friend Daniel Zeichner on his earlier work.

As expertly set out by the noble Lord, the purpose of the Bill is to increase the safety of passengers by introducing new checks on taxi and private hire drivers. For that very reason, we welcome the measures contained in the Bill. Specifically, as I understand it, the Bill would oblige taxi and private hire vehicle licensing authorities to submit information about refusals, suspensions and revocations of driver licences to a national database. Licensing authorities would have to check the database before making licensing decisions. That seems both logical and very sensible.

At present, all licensing authorities require DBS checks, but these reveal only prosecutions. Many unacceptable incidents do not lead to charges or even to police involvement. The important thing about the Bill is that it brings co-ordination to the national licensing system, something long overdue.

The Bill would create an additional check by allowing the sharing of other relevant information, by requiring licensing authorities to keep registers of licences issued and to make this information available on request. Supporters of the Bill have said that although the main focus is protecting the public, it will also benefit drivers by boosting their reputation and providing an important measure of comfort—and, more than that, confidence—for taxi service users.

I hardly need to say this but, a year on from the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, nobody needs reminding that we must do all we can to enhance public protection, particularly of people in a position of vulnerability. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to some very useful examples to suggest how this measure may be of value and use in ensuring that we do not let a few rogue drivers into the taxi-driving profession. It must be said that the taxi trade is generally well regulated. Taxi drivers offer millions of examples every day of being the very best in providing a public service, which most of us use without a second thought because they are, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has told us, trusted and friendly. They are of course never short of offering their opinions and worldview on more or less every topic.

I share in the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, about the need for greater accessibility and protections for those who are disabled and vulnerable users of taxi services. I also share his aspiration for taxi services to be seen much more in the light of being a public service, rather than a private add-on. We need legislation that perhaps modernises the framework in which taxis and private hire operators work.

I have one question of the Bill’s sponsors; I am sure it is something I have missed. Will the Bill cover Uber service providers? I have assumed that it will but would welcome reassurance on that point. My guess is that the taxi trade as a whole would welcome that assurance too, because it believes in a level playing field and Uber offers what is, after all, a national service.

Labour has supported the Bill through the House of Commons and we will continue to support the measure in your Lordships’ House today. I wish it well from here.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 12:57, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for bringing forward this Bill, which the Government wholeheartedly support. I am also so grateful for the support expressed for the Bill by my noble friend Lord Holmes, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. I think we would all pay tribute to my honourable friend Peter Gibson, the Member for Darlington, for successfully steering the Bill through from the other place to your Lordships’ House.

My noble friend Lord Borwick, with his incredible experience in the area of taxis—I was not aware of quite how much he had done for accessibility and am grateful to my noble friend Lord Holmes for reminding us of that—has very ably set out the purpose of this fairly narrow Bill. As I said, the Government support it and are very keen to see its provisions in place as soon as possible. But I am standing here as the Government and, although we support the Bill, I would like to address a few things in the wider taxi and PHV space.

My noble friend Lord Holmes talked about taxis and PHVs as public transport and, to an extent, the Government agree. We see them as an integral part of the wider transport network. Any good local authority will think incredibly carefully about how these vital services are able to reach people and then drop them off at their destinations, particularly those who are disabled and others who may be vulnerable. Taxis and PHVs are licensed and enforced by over 270 different authorities. Many agree that that is too many and may lead to inconsistencies and a greater risk of failure.

In the levelling-up White Paper which we published on 2 February, we announced that we would explore transferring the responsibility for licensing taxis and PHVs to upper-tier and combined authorities in England. One benefit of reducing the number of licensing authorities from around 276 to just over 80 could be increased consistency in licensing standards. A second would be that licensing would be in the hands of the same authorities that draft local transport plans; I think that makes perfect sense and look forward to progressing those proposals. In the context of such large numbers of licensing authorities, the Government are very focused on consistency in licensing and enforcement and raising standards, particularly with regard to safeguarding across the sector.

In 2017, we commissioned the task and finish group on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing to consider the adequacy and efficiency of the legislation and guidance and to make recommendations to address the priority issues. The Government responded to that report in 2019. We committed to legislate when parliamentary time permits to set national minimum standards in licensing, introduce national enforcement powers and establish a national licensing database to include all driver, vehicle and operator licensing information. That remains our intention.

In the meantime, however, the Government have published the Statutory Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Standards, which clearly set out what licensing authorities should do to safeguard children and adults. I have written to licensing authorities many times since the publication of the statutory standards to emphasise their importance and ensure that authorities are moving quickly to improve their safeguarding policies. One aspect of the statutory standards strongly recommends the use of information-sharing tools in licensing, specifically the national register of refusals and revocations, also known as NR3. Uptake and use of NR3 has been good and has been growing—I get literally monthly updates, so I can see what is happening—but it is not yet universal. That is why this Bill will help us to make sure that the usage of that or an equivalent database is mandatory. Essentially, the Bill mandates the existing direction of travel to improve safeguarding.

The next step for the department is to update the best practice guidance, and there will be a consultation on that shortly. It will cover licensing, enforcement and accessibility, including a strong recommendation that every driver be required to complete disability awareness training. We recognise that taxis and PHVs are a vital mode of transport for many people with disabilities, and I was appalled to hear about the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, at her local station. She asked a specific question about the interrelationship between refusing to take a disabled passenger and this Bill. I will write to her on that and other matters that have been raised, because I am looking at the time and I know that I am well over.

Finally, on my noble friend Lord Holmes’ point about taxi access on certain roads, it is true that I am the Minister for TfL and, indeed, the Minister for every highway authority in the country. Local highway authorities are responsible for determining how road space is allocated, and of course they must be responsive to local communities. I encourage anyone who has an issue with what a local highway authority is doing to get in touch with them.

To close, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Borwick. I look forward to the passage of this Bill, and I hope that it can pass into legislation as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, I know we are short of time, but I have a brief question for the Minister before she sits down. Regarding authorities for streets such as Tottenham Court Road and other areas that refuse taxis, thus making them inaccessible for disabled people, does she agree that that is a prima facie breach of equalities legislation and their public sector equality duty? I am happy if she wants to write on that subject.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am very grateful to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to write to him on that.

Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative 1:03, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the Bill this afternoon, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Assault and refusal by drivers are exactly the sort of comments that would be added to the database and are relevant to the discussion as to whether that driver gets a new licence.

Of course, the range of wheelchairs carried by taxis nowadays varies enormously. We found that the type of wheelchair used most is, in fact, a baby buggy. Indeed, as we age over the years, it is possible to say that we all spend time in wheelchairs, and we are lucky if we do so only at the very beginning of our lives. But it is terribly important that disabled people be able to get a wheelchair-accessible taxi everywhere. A long time ago, I think in the original Disability Discrimination Act brought in some 20 years ago, the enabling legislation for statutory instruments to make all taxis wheelchair accessible was put in, so they await the moment when those statutory instruments are brought forward.

On false accusations, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Holmes, there is of course still the opportunity for such accusations to be appealed against by the taxi driver and dealt with through the appeals system in each borough. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, all Uber vehicles are licensed as private hire vehicles, so they are covered by the Bill.

I thank noble Lords very much for their help, and I beg to move.

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