Moved by Lord Moylan
472: After Clause 214, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to consult on the licensing of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles(1) The Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate about the merits of amending Part 2 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles) such that only upper-tier authorities in England, outside of Greater London and the City of Plymouth, would become permitted to grant licences to—(a) hackney carriages,(b) drivers of hackney carriages,(c) private hire vehicles,(d) drivers of private hire vehicles, or(e) operators of private hire vehicles.(2) In this section—“upper-tier authority” means—(a) a unitary authority, or(b) a combined authority;“unitary authority” has the meaning given in regulation 2(3) of the Local Government Changes for England Regulations 1994 (S.I. 1994/867);“combined authority” means a combined authority established under section 103 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009.”Member's explanatory statementThis new Clause would require the Secretary of State to consult within a reasonable timeframe on the proposal of the Government within its Levelling Up White Paper of February 2022 "...to explore transferring control of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing to both combined authorities and upper-tier authorities”.
My Lords, Amendment 472 stands in my name. On another occasion, I am sure that this amendment would attract a wide-ranging debate, but I will understand if there are few speakers this evening and I will be satisfied with a short answer from my noble friend, as I intend to explain. This amendment is to probe where His Majesty’s Government are on a proposal in the levelling up White Paper that the licensing of private hire vehicles and taxis be carried out by upper-tier or combined authorities, rather than by district authorities as now.
The need for some sort of consolidation of legislation is apparent when one realises that in England these arrangements are governed in the main by Part 2 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976—except, of course, in Plymouth, where they are governed by the Plymouth City Council Act 1975, and in London, where taxi regulation relies on, among other statutes, the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and the London Cab Order 1934 made under it. Quite separately in the capital are the minicab private hire vehicles, where drivers and operators are subject to the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998.
The licensing of taxis and private hire vehicles by lower-tier authorities means that there are currently 276 licensing authorities in the country. This has the effect of restricting the field of operation of taxis and private hire. The proposal in this amendment would reduce that to a mere 80—not quite nirvana, but still a considerable improvement. Drawing on my experience as a former deputy chairman of Transport for London, there is a lot to be said for having a single licensing authority covering a wide population in a contiguous area when it comes to contributing to the vitality and vibrancy of the private hire and taxi sector.
The advantage would be to make it less burdensome for private hire drivers. This is a mode of transport, we should remember, that the Department for Transport recognises as an essential feature of our transport system, with particular benefits to the less mobile and to the vulnerable, including, of course, women in the hours of darkness. The Government have not committed to making the changes they floated in the levelling up White Paper, but that was all of a year ago. What they did say was that they were going to listen to people and might undertake a consultation. But since then, nothing has happened.
The simple purpose of this amendment, apart from making the case for change, is to ask my noble friend whether she can say when the Government are going to initiate discussions and conversations, and indeed a consultation, on this proposal so that we can all find out better if it has the merits that it appears to have on the face of it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for setting out the case for his amendment. However, I am afraid it still looks to me as if he is trying to fix something that is not broken and in doing so is going in the opposite direction of travel to a Bill for devolution.
Taxi licensing in two-tier areas is operated efficiently and effectively and enables local authorities to meet local needs. It also enables local taxi businesses to call into their local authority and have direct contact with it. The enforcement is also done very effectively. The proposal in the levelling up White Paper to transfer taxi licensing powers might be relevant to mayoral combined authorities, but I cannot see the case to justify it for shire counties. Current arrangements for licensing in shire counties work well and do not need to be disturbed. There are more important issues that would benefit shire counties than taking up time on such a consultation; for example, allowing councils to set licensing and planning fees or reforming funding for regeneration so that bidding is not necessary. I could go on, but it is late so I will not.
Even in London, it is not possible to buy an integrated ticket covering tubes, trains, buses and taxis. There will never be an integration of ticketing for obvious reasons of affordability; the cost of taxis and private hire vehicles make them the most expensive form of transport per mile. The White Paper presents no evidence that decisions on licensing prevent the integration of those transport modes into local transport plans. County councils as highways authorities are competent at providing taxi ranks at transport hubs and other appropriate locations in town centres; they do not need taxi licensing powers to achieve that integration.
District councils are not likely to ban taxis from operating half an hour either side of a train arrival, to try to stop private hire vehicles from picking up at or near bus stops, or to say that taxis cannot run at 2 am on Saturday or Sunday mornings to pick up people leaving nightclubs. So could we have more clarity on why Whitehall thinks that there is an integration problem?
A government Minister in the other place has talked of the inconsistency between licensing authorities because there are so many of them. Reducing the number of licensing authorities to 80, as that Minister mentioned, shows the fallacy of the suggestion. One could argue that inconsistencies are local authorities meeting the needs of their communities in relation to taxi operation. However, even if there are problems of inconsistency in policy or practice, the way to address them is by legislating for consistency.
In shire counties, it is likely that the review would be unwelcome and unnecessary. It would remove local decision-making that is sensitive to local requirements and policies and based on local knowledge. It is the opposite of devolution; it would not be an improvement to see decisions on licensing being taken remotely, with no guarantee that they will be people elected by the districts concerned or that they would have any knowledge of the district.
“to explore transferring control of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing to both combined authorities and upper-tier authorities”.
I reassure my noble friend that the Department for Transport plans to engage stakeholders on the proposal set out in the levelling up White Paper to explore transferring the responsibility for licensing taxis and private hire vehicles to upper-tier and combined authorities. The aim is to do so during the course of this year. Clearly, as my noble friend will understand, it is essential that the proposal is considered in detail before any decisions are taken about whether to proceed with the change. I am sure that the issues highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, can be picked up in that engagement process. My colleagues at the Department for Transport reassure me that they are currently working on this, so I hope that that, in turn, reassures my noble friend Lord Moylan sufficiently to enable him to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, who was speaking almost as if I were suggesting that this power be transferred from local authority to some remote Whitehall bureaucracy and administered by statutory instrument in a way displeasing to your Lordships’ House. We are both committed to local government; it is simply a question of which tier of local government, where more than one exists, is the appropriate authority for doing this.
None the less, I am delighted to hear what my noble friend the Minister said; he offered me the assurances I wanted to hear. The discussions, consultations and engagement will proceed, and he has given a timeline. I have achieved as much as I had hoped to achieve in the course of this debate, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 472 withdrawn.