The clause deals with a contentious issue among a small group of people, which is why I hope it will command the interest of the Minister, if not necessarily of every member of the Committee. The hon. Gentleman will know that the proposal has been the subject of consultation, and paragraph 6.85 on page 142 of the regulatory impact assessment makes it clear that
''Opposition to the proposal came mainly from unlicensed companies providing contract services to local authorities. They argued that: the drivers underwent criminal record checks in order to work on the contracts; the services they provided were ''specialist'' in nature, requiring specialist vehicles; the work allowed them to utilise the services of housewives and retired people to drive just a couple of hours a day; many of the part-time drivers would leave rather than acquire licences; the work they undertook did not sit sensibly with the requirements of the PHV licensing system, eg why should a driver have to know his way around the whole of London when he drove, say, one pre-determined route every day for the whole school year; and they would suffer financially if they had to acquire licences.''
One firm that comes within the ambit of that opposition is P and J Travel, which is based in Orpington. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) is, at this moment, on his feet in the Chamber in an Adjournment debate, which shows what a diligent MP he is. Knowing that he could not be in two places at once, he asked me to articulate the concerns of P and J Travel about the unnecessarily draconian and inflexible extension of the law. It has made a constructive suggestion, asking whether the Government, if they are intent on proceeding with the change, will allow another exemption.
The Minister will know that there is already an exemption for wedding cars and funeral cars. Parliament considered such operations to be of a sufficiently specialist nature to warrant exemption. It is the contention of the director of P and J Travel, Paul Yeoell, that his is a specialist operation. It carries special needs children to and from school, often in specially adapted vehicles, and he would argue that his operation is even more specialist than those of people who provide cars for weddings and funerals. It has been said—not by him—that in some circumstances wedding and funeral cars are nothing more than glorified minicabbing operations. If the Government believe that the present situation constitutes a loophole, why do they not believe that it needs to be tightened with regard to wedding and funeral cars? Alternatively, if wedding and funeral cars are to continue to be exempt, why cannot that exemption be extended to a specialist operation such as that of P and J Travel?
I shall certainly limit my remarks about wedding cars and funeral cars to wedding cars and funeral cars in London, if that was not implicit in what I have been saying. The firm of which I speak is in Orpington, which is part of the Greater London area. It is in the London borough of Bromley. I will excuse you, Mr. Pike, for your lack of detailed knowledge of London. Many wish that they knew less about London than they do, especially given the way in which it is run these days. At any rate, I can confirm that Orpington is within the London borough of Bromley, which is represented by an exclusive and very competent team of right hon. and hon. Conservative Members. We do not need to go into the detail of each of their attributes.
P and J Travel operates in that London borough, for the people of Bromley, and it believes that if the clause is unamended it will have to start to lay off staff and its costs will go up. I get the feeling that some hon. Members who are less familiar with the London scene would like us to move on to the next subject. One argument against the clause is that the criminal record checks are not effective. If the checking system is ineffective, it should be tightened, rather than it being addressed through draconian legislation. The onus for checking normally lies with the contracting body, but there is a loophole because unvetted replacement drivers can be used if a vetted driver is unavailable. If there is a loophole in the criminal record check system for local authority transport, and there seems to be some doubt about that, it is identified in paragraph 6.54 of the Government's regulatory impact assessment document.
The Government might say that the argument about criminal record checks is not well founded and is fallacious. If there is a weakness in the criminal record checks system, it should be put right directly, rather than in a roundabout way, which will result in extra regulation, extra expense and, although it will not necessarily putting P and J Travel out of business, it will seriously burden it. It will also drive a number of its employees out of business, because they regard themselves not as minicab drivers but as proud servants of the public, providing a necessary service to needy children. They do not regard themselves as drivers, and do not want to have to take the tests and be subject to all the regulation of the common or garden minicab driver. That is not to insult the great mass of minicab drivers, who almost invariably vote Conservative, because they are strong and independent and wish to be free, but it is to recognise that people working for P and J Travel do not want to be subject to additional, burdensome regulation.
I hope that the Minister will justify the inclusion of the clause and say that the Government have not introduced it merely because some jobsworth working for Transport for London thinks that there is a loophole, and they want to get their greasy hands on more money. As far as I am aware, the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, which was enacted to deal with the problem of minicab drivers, has been working well. I am not aware of any case of abuse that falls within this loophole. My concern is that if we approve the Bill with this clause in it, it could interfere with existing contractual relations. For example, where an old folks' home has a vehicle under private hire, under a five-year contract, to take residents to bingo once a week at a specific bingo hall, presumably the operator who is carrying out his side of the contract without complaint and without a problem would be prevented from continuing to operate that contract, because a new legal requirement would be imposed on him.
I should like to hear from the Minister why someone who does not deal with the public in the traditional sense of the word, but who works to specific contracts to undertake specific journeys, needs to go through the rigmarole of taking a test to see whether they know parts of London that they may not even cover with their business. That seems a heavy-handed approach. I am not surprised that the request came from Transport for London, but I am surprised that the Minister included the clause in the Bill without exemptions that would cover the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch referred.
Clause 44 amends the definition of ''private hire vehicle'' in section 1(1)(a) of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 by removing the words ''to the public''. The amended definition will bring within the PHV licensing regime operators and drivers who currently provide a private hire service to an identified group or organisation but not to the public at large, and who therefore do not currently require licences. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire will know that that legislation resulted from a private Member's Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is not without experience in the field of transport.
The clause will eliminate the practice whereby operators and drivers evade licensing by providing a dedicated service to a specific group or organisation. That was not envisaged in the 1998 Act. I am told that in other parts of the country such people have to be fully licensed and go through all the checks; it is only in London that that does not happen. There has been concern that a number of people say that they are part of a contract to do a job, but then offer services to the wider public as well. In other words, there is abuse: while people are saying that they are working on one type of contract, they are extending their work and carrying out other contracts.
We have to remember what these people are doing and the people whom they carry. We have heard almost exclusively about the carriage of people who are quite vulnerable: children and elderly people. The relatives of an elderly person and the parents of children have the right to expect that the people who convey them in vehicles have been properly checked. Often, the driver may be the only adult or responsible person in the vehicle. I had a bit of a heavy heart when it came to this clause, because I did not want to inhibit some amateur drivers and people who do a great deal of good work. That is a problem, but we had to weigh on the other side the abuse that is taking place, which could lead to vulnerable people being put at risk by people who have not been checked.
Will the Minister accept that, when all the activity is carried out for a local authority, that local authority will ensure that the children, for example, are carried in accordance with the highest standards, and that there is no need for additional regulation on top of the checks that the local authority makes?
First, even if someone gets quasi-authorisation through a local authority, the local authority may not be carrying out checks of the same quality. Secondly, such operators can, and often do, compete in the market in an unfair way, because they are not licensed but are carrying out some of the same work as licensed drivers, who have to meet very high standards. There can be unfair competition in those circumstances, which is unfortunate.
One does not regularly hire wedding and funeral vehicles for one's family, so the circumstances are somewhat different. However, we need to build in that provision for the carriage of children, elderly people and vulnerable people such as disabled people.
I have some concerns about the burden that we place on voluntary drivers, who do some excellent work. If we could find a way of lifting that burden, I would be interested to hear of it. In the end, what drove me to include this clause in the Bill was the need to underpin it with the safety of the people who are being conveyed.
I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. He sounds more sympathetic to the case that I have put than it might appear in the Official Report, because his body language shows that he realises that this is an issue that affects that particular company. That firm is not aware of any other operator that currently offers exclusive services to local authorities. I hope that the Government will think again about drafting an amendment to the clause that would enable those who provide exclusive services to local authorities to be exempted in the same way as those who provide wedding and funeral services.
The Minister says that wedding and funeral services are not used frequently. Obviously, unless one has a very large and extended family, as an individual one will not be going to funerals and weddings all that frequently. However, those services are sometimes contracted by funeral directors and funeral directors will use the services most days, even several times a day. I therefore do not think that that way of distinguishing between wedding and funeral services and local authority services is valid. The Minister said that he was sympathetic to those amateur drivers, who are already very much controlled by the local authority contractor. One way in which he can demonstrate that sympathy is to offer to think again about the matter.
For total clarity, I point out that those people who are genuine volunteers—who receive no recompense for their services—should not be affected at all. The 1998 Act extends to vehicles that are hired, which involves some sort of payment to the person who is carrying out the contract. It does not affect genuine volunteers.
I do not know whether that means that it affects people who are remunerated solely with a modest mileage allowance, as a lot of such volunteers are. They are paid about 20p a mile, because there is an Inland Revenue approved rate for mileage recompense and, if that rate is paid, it is not regarded as incurring any taxable liability. I understand that, if such people get paid even that sort of modest rate, they are still caught by the law—but perhaps I am wrong. However, it is unnecessary to go that extra bit further in closing down all those loopholes in the name of safety when we have no evidence that safety is being jeopardised in a case such as the one that I cited. I hope that we will be able to get the Government to think again. Sometimes one can say, ''Hard cases make bad law'' but if the Government listen to this hard case it will make much better law.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 3.