‘(1) Section 46 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (vehicle, drivers’ and operators’ licences) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1)(b), for “driver of any private hire vehicle” substitute “driver of any vehicle when it is in use as a private hire vehicle”.
(3) After subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) For the purposes of this Act, a reference to a vehicle being in use as a private hire vehicle is a reference to a private hire vehicle which—
(a) is in use in connection with a hiring for the purpose of carrying passengers; or
(b) is immediately available to an operator to carry out a booking for a private hire vehicle.”
(4) After subsection (2) insert—
“(3) If, in any proceedings for an offence under this section in which it is alleged that the defendant contravened subsection (1)(b), the prosecution prove that a private hire vehicle was at any time being used on a road to carry one or more passengers, it is to be presumed, unless the contrary is shown, that the vehicle was, at that time, in use in connection with a hiring as mentioned in subsection (1A)(a).”’.
This amendment inserts a new clause which allows people who do not hold a private hire vehicle driver’s licence to drive a licensed private hire vehicle when the vehicle is not being used as a private hire vehicle (for example, a licensed private hire vehicle driver’s partner could use the vehicle for a family outing).—(Tom Brake.)
The purpose of the new clause is to free up many families from the need to run a second car by enabling people who do not hold a private hire vehicles driver’s licence to drive licensed private hire vehicles when they are not being used commercially. One significant problem with the existing legislative framework governing private hire vehicles is that case law has thrown up some unexpected interpretations of the law. Before 1997, it was generally accepted in the private hire sector that a private hire vehicle could only be driven by a licensed private hire driver when it was being used as a private hire vehicle. A judgment in 1997 stated that the law prohibited a person without a private hire driver’s licence from driving a licensed private hire vehicle at any time. At a stroke, that meant that thousands of families had to buy a second car, which is clearly a burden too far. We consider that burden ideal for reform under the Bill.
There is a precedent for the change we are introducing. Because the judgment was made in 1997, Parliament took account of it when framing the much newer legislation governing private hire vehicles in London. The Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 allows a person who does not hold a private hire driver’s licence to drive a licensed private hire vehicle while it is off duty. The legislation we are amending applies in England outside London and Wales, but not in Plymouth, where different legislation governs private hire vehicles.
I recognise that some concerns have been expressed about the safety element and effective enforcement. That is why we have incorporated a reverse burden of proof in the clause. If a driver without a PHV driver’s licence is caught driving a licensed PHV with a passenger on board, the clause places the onus on that person to show that the vehicle was not being used as a hire vehicle at the time. In most cases it will be abundantly clear in a matter of seconds that the passenger is in the vehicle as part of general domestic use to which the vehicle can now be put, such as a mother picking up her child from school. It will also quickly become apparent if the passenger’s sole reason for being in the vehicle is to do with private hire work. In those cases it seems to be completely reasonable to put the burden of proof on the driver to show that they were not driving for private hire purposes, should they not be licensed to do so. That added safeguard should meet the concerns expressed about safety and enforcement.
New clause 10 allows private hire vehicle operators to subcontract to each other across licensing boundaries. That will allow private hire vehicle operators to work more flexibly and to grow their businesses. Passengers will be able to rely on their local operator, rather than being turned away when the operator cannot directly fulfil the booking. Under the triple licence requirement, private hire operators are licensed within a district and must use only vehicles and drivers licensed by the same local authority as granted their operator licence. It is important that that requirement remains in place for the moment, although we will revisit the whole issue when we consider the Law Commission’s report.
Travel patterns, however, are not neatly aligned with district borders. That is why private hire operators are allowed to accept bookings for journeys which go beyond the district or which are wholly outside the district. It is currently prohibited for a licensed operator to subcontract a booking to an operator in a different district. An operator can only subcontract bookings to an operator licensed in the same district. That is clearly restrictive and the Government consider it ripe for reform. The clause will allow a private hire operator licensed outside London—although not based in Plymouth, because of the exception—to subcontract a booking to another operator in a different district or based in London or based in Scotland. That liberalising measure will enable the private hire trade to operate in the way it sees fit, not just in the way that the restrictive legislation dictates. Operators will be able to choose, on a commercial basis, whether to fulfil a particular journey by using their own vehicles and drivers or whether it would be preferable to subcontract the booking to another, more conveniently located operator. There will be positive consequences for the environment, as there will be less dead mileage.
The measure will also have considerable benefits for passengers, as they will no longer have to search for and approach an alternative operator at busy times. In particular, it will enable passengers with special needs to receive a better service. If an operator, for example, has no wheelchair-accessible vehicles in its pool of vehicles, it can none the less accept the booking and subcontract it, rather than simply turning away the passenger. I stress that the initial operator remains liable to the passenger who made the original booking, as the law deems the contract to continue between the original operator and the person who booked the journey, even if the service is subcontracted to another operator. As such, the original operator will not be able to absolve him or herself from all responsibility for the journey by passing it to another operator. The original operator will therefore have a direct interest in ensuring that the actual journey is successfully completed, so it should only subcontract to a trusted operator. The clause applies solely to private hire operators, because taxi operators are not subject to regulation.
I shall now discuss new clause 11. The legislation that covers taxi and private hire vehicle drivers and private hire vehicle operators in England and Wales outside London and Plymouth allows a licensing authority to grant—
I apologise to the Minister for interrupting his flow. I am shortly due to go to Plymouth, Moor View to campaign for Johnny Mercer, the Conservative candidate in that constituency. If I pick up a taxi there, I will wonder why it is licensed in a different way. Will taxis in Plymouth ultimately receive the same benefits as are to be brought to taxi drivers elsewhere by the amendments and new clauses to the Bill?
I am sure it is a two-horse race, and may the best horse win.
It is entirely up to the authorities in Plymouth whether they adopt the legislation. I hope that at some point they will, because for customers—passengers—it is of benefit. Clearly, that is a decision that they will have to take at an appropriate time.
Going back to new clause 11, the legislation I mentioned allows a licensing authority to grant a driver’s licence for a maximum of three years and a private hire vehicle operator licence for a maximum of five years. The intention at the time was that licences should be for three years and for five years.
We are all interested in the exemptions for London and for Plymouth. Will the Minister explain a little more where the exemptions come from and, specifically, whether other cities in future may for other reasons apply for exemptions to the existing policy on private hire vehicles?
London and Plymouth do not have exemptions as such. London has London-specific legislation on private hire vehicles and, as I stated earlier, that legislation is more up to date, because it was passed in connection with the Greater London authority. The situation in Plymouth dates back to the 1976 Act, which at the time Plymouth chose not to opt into, although it may choose to opt in at any point, in which case the provisions in the Bill, once passed, would apply in Plymouth as well. As I understand it, all that is required for Plymouth to opt in is a motion in the council calling for it to happen and, if a majority of the Plymouth councillors voted for the motion, this legislation would then apply.
I am grateful for the clarification. Does that mean that any local authority may opt out of the 1976 Act at any time to be in a similar position to Plymouth?
I will seek guidance, but I assume not, on the basis that all local authorities opted into the 1976 Act, with the exception of Plymouth. It is also worth pointing out, however, that the Law Commission is doing some ongoing work on taxis. The expectation is that it will come up with a proposal for national legislation which, if adopted, would standardise the law throughout the country.
The reason for coming forward with these limited proposals is that there is nothing wrong in principle with addressing some localised issues. I wait to hear what the Opposition Front-Bench team have to say, but I hope that they will be supportive of concise measures that affect a limited area of private hire vehicle activities while allowing the Law Commission to do more detailed work on a whole range of issues. I do not think that those two things cannot run in parallel, which is why we have identified the matter as something on which the Government can take action now and that has a significant positive deregulatory impact. It will assist the operators of private hire vehicles and their passengers, who will receive a better service.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not want to disappoint him in advance of the disappointment that he will experience when I stand up to make my speech, but we do not view the new clauses in the same way and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead suggested, are concerned about the process.
I thank the hon. Lady for that clarification. I am sure that she will go into more detail about the Opposition’s concerns shortly.
New clause 11’s purpose is to standardise at three years the duration of both taxi and private hire driver licences and at five years the licence for a private hire vehicle operator. Any shorter periods will be on account of the circumstances of any particular application, but the expectation is three years for drivers and five years for operators.
I want to draw to the Minister’s attention a recent case in Southampton in which a group of taxi drivers were convicted for violent offences. Will the Minister reassure me that any changes to the licensing period will not in any way hamper local authorities from reconsidering licences at an earlier point?
I can certainly give that assurance, because both under the new proposals and the current rules there is no change in terms of applying the Criminal Records Bureau test or the new Disclosure and Barring Service test.
The effect of standardising licence duration is that licence holders in areas where the licensing authority currently grants licences for shorter durations will no longer have routinely to apply for renewals of their licences at shorter frequencies than the three or five years’ standard duration. Far too many licensing authorities have now adopted a policy of routinely granting driver and operator licences for a period much less than the maximum. The Department for Transport carries out a biennial survey of licensing authorities to understand the various licensing policies in place around the country and it was apparent from its 2013 survey that over half of licensing authorities grant taxi and private hire driver licences for less than three years. The survey also discovered that a substantial proportion of licensing authorities routinely granted private hire operator licences for less than five years. That amounts to a tremendous amount of unnecessary cost for licence holders and places far too great a burden on them in terms of going about the process of applying for renewals. The Government consider that that is one area of taxi legislation that would benefit from deregulation. By setting a standard duration of three years for taxi and private hire vehicle driver licences and five years for private hire vehicle operator licences, we will be making life a lot simpler and substantially cheaper for licence holders. We estimate that the measure will save drivers around £8 million a year and operators around £1 million a year.
I appreciate that some of those responsible for licensing have expressed fears about the possible adverse safety implications, as just raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, from allowing drivers to have a licence for three years. I understand the importance of safety, which is one of the principal reasons why we have a licensing system in the first place. The licensing system must, however, be proportionate and recognise that where there is a requirement there is a cost.
The element of the licensing process about which licensing authorities seem most concerned relates to driver suitability. It is the case now that licensing authorities—even those who grant annual licences—carry out criminal record checks only every three years, and they will continue to be able to carry out formal checks on drivers every three years. Moreover, the new Disclosure and Barring Service enables licence holders to sign up for an automatic update that provides a mechanism for licensing authorities to be alerted to any convictions during the currency of a licence. We are not entering uncharted territory. Taxi and private hire drivers in just under half of provincial licensing areas—and in the whole of London—are granted for three years.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Chope, and the pleasure is increased by the knowledge that the Bill Committee is in its final day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said, there would be a holiday atmosphere in the Bill Committee today were it not for the fact that the Government chose to table so many new clauses at the last moment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; that is correct. However, we had some warning about the other new clauses, so we anticipated and were able to discuss them, but these new clauses were tabled at short notice. I will discuss that when I explain the reasons for our concern.
The hon. Lady is aware that the Sikh Council wants a change made to the requirement to wear helmets. Why should the Government not respond? My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire tabled an excellent new clause about the BBC, and we accepted it. Surely that is what a Bill is all about. The hon. Lady herself tabled eight new clauses.
I thank the Law Officer for that intervention. As I will set out, the new clauses on private hire vehicles were tabled at the last moment and with minimal notice. We have repeatedly characterised the Bill as a rag-bag or a Christmas tree Bill, but these three new clauses are particularly poisonous and were tabled particularly hastily, so we are extremely concerned about them.
On new clauses 9, 10 and 11, the Law Commission is supposed to be coming forward with some sort of new Bill next month. From what I can gather, Ministers have been saying that they are not meeting with interested parties, but these proposals have been banged through at the last minute in a Bill that was completely unexpected.
I thank my hon. Friend for clearly setting out our concerns, which I will explain in a bit more detail. Notwithstanding the Minister’s interventions, the process by which we have come to be discussing the new clauses has, frankly, been utterly shambolic. It is no way to make changes to laws that will affect public safety.
As my hon. Friend indicated, the Government committed to reforming private hire vehicle regulation in 2011. The Department for Transport asked the Law Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the legislation governing taxis and PHVs, with the aim of modernising and simplifying it. This is a complex area, and many of us have concerns about the effect of the law in our constituencies. It was therefore appropriate that a long-term review was undertaken by such an august body as the Law Commission.
In May 2012, the Law Commission launched a consultation on taxi deregulation. It included a number of proposals, including the three we are considering today. The final report and recommendations have been subject to continuous delays, and are currently expected at the end of April 2014—I do not know whether there will be an update on when they will be published. The industry has many stakeholders. It has been involved in an ongoing process for the past few years now. I therefore share my hon. Friend’s surprise that, in parallel with their own review, the Government should launch another review with a 10-day informal consultation on the three measures.
My hon. Friend has laid out the length of time that this issue has been looked at and the background to the process, as it was understood. Does she have any suggestions as to why the Government did not put the measures in the Bill originally, but have now brought them forward at the last minute? Is it to minimise any opposition and any opportunity for scrutiny? Does she have any other ideas?
I am afraid it is not within my means to explain the Government’s actions on this matter, but the Committee would agree that any lack of scrutiny of the three new clauses as a result of their being tabled at the last minute would be a dereliction of our duty to taxi drivers and our constituents more generally, as they often use taxis as an important means of transport.
After that long process of consultation with the Law Commission, I understand that just over a week ago, at 4.40 pm on Friday 14 March, industry and union representatives were told that the proposals were being added to the Bill. That is unacceptable. Perhaps the Solicitor-General will clarify this point for us, but it is possible that the motivation for rushing to add the measures to the Bill with barely a week’s notice was that Ministers realised that the delays to the Law Commission process meant that the proposals might not be brought forward before the election.
That point is further emphasised by the Cabinet Office guidance on consultations, which says:
“Timeframes for consultation should be proportionate and realistic to allow stakeholders sufficient time to provide a considered response”.
It goes on:
“For a new and contentious policy”— this policy is contentious—
“12 weeks or more may still be appropriate. When deciding on the timescale for a given consultation the capacity of the groups being consulted to respond should be taken into consideration.”
Where in that guidance do we see reflected a situation in which a disparate industry with many different stakeholders and interested parties is given only 10 days’ notice of proposals?
The proposals before us have not been properly deliberated by the trade and the time scale has not allowed for any consultation to help to form a considered and reasoned response. All stakeholders who have contacted me have stated that the informal consultation on the measures has been completely inadequate. Their inclusion in the Bill in such a manner will threaten safety and could increase litigation.
Will the Minister tell us what will now happen to the long-running work of the Law Commission? The Government have spent, we assume, a considerable amount of money commissioning the Law Commission to carry out a survey of and consultation on all taxi and private hire laws, not just the three measures put forward today. Does he accept that the new clauses would undermine that work if it is to continue, and is he confident that 10 days of consultation is adequate?
Let me briefly quote from some contributions I have received. Given that these provisions were not in the Bill when we took evidence, it is important that we hear evidence from the trade. The GMB professional drivers section says that
“this microscopic consultation is a short cut to removing the high standards that exist in local authorities for drivers and licensed vehicles which ensure that every licensed driver and vehicle can deliver a safe and professional service to the public.”
The hon. Lady referred to the short consultation. I thought it might be helpful for her to know that the Law Commission carried out four months of comprehensive consultation between May and September 2012, which included these three specific measures.
I thank the Minister for his contribution, but I said that the Law Commission’s long and forward-looking consultation included these three proposals. I see difficulties if they are picked out of an ongoing consultation and rushed through when, as we have seen with many other aspects of this Bill, the overall impact of the regulation is such a concern. For example, with the planning regulation changes, it was the full package that made them acceptable to the Committee. Here we have three clauses picked out without the full package.
Does the Minister agree with Brighton and Hove Streamline taxis, which operates a mixed fleet of some 350 taxis and private hire vehicles, all licensed by Brighton and Hove city council? It said:
“‘Consultation’ was offered to a select few bodies in January, but with only a ten day response time allowed. A further ‘consultation’ has been offered now but not widely promoted, again with a tight deadline and then only in respect of possibly onerous licensing conditions.”
Does the Solicitor-General agree that the Government’s behaviour in starting one consultation with the Law Commission and picking out amendments and putting them in a separate Bill with minimal consultation brings the consultation process into disrepute?
New clause 9 allows people who do not hold a private hire vehicle licence to drive it when it is not being used as a PHV. The Parliamentary Secretary indicated that London was a precedent for the change. London has one of the largest taxi markets in the world and it is a global city. As we saw with the exceptions for investment in transport and regulation of local transport, it is not appropriate to say that that is a precedent for transport throughout the rest of the country. Under the new clause, family members may use a PHV as long as they do not use it as a PHV. The Minister suggested that that was totally straightforward, but the proposal is potentially dangerous and deserves full consultation and consideration. He said that if a family member is caught driving the PHV with someone else in the car, the real circumstances would be obvious. What evidence does he have that that would be obvious, and how are they likely to be caught? On what basis would the police stop PHVs to determine whether a family member or licensed driver was driving it?
Industry and unions are seriously concerned about the new clause. The National Private Hire Association and the Institute of Licensing are seriously concerned about the safety implications. Minicabs are working vehicles that require licensed drivers. The Minister recognised to a certain extent that the measure carried with it at least the possibility of undermining public safety.
Enforcement against the illegal use of licensed vehicles would, I believe, be almost impossible. The industry has said that there would have to be a provision for an indicator that a vehicle was off duty or a restriction such as spouses only, with a wedding certificate required as proof. That opens up all kinds of possibilities for confusion and strange altercations on the roadside if the drivers of such vehicles are asked for wedding certificates. Unite and the GMB, which between them represent thousands of taxi drivers, have stated that the proposals will endanger the safety of the travelling public. The safety of the travelling public must be our prime concern in this legislation; I am sure that it is. I have been pleased to see campaigns in London, for example, that ask the public to pay particular attention to the nature of the private hire vehicles they use, to ensure that they do not use rogue vehicles.
It certainly is an issue now. That is one of the reasons for campaigns such as the one I just referred to, which alert the public to the issues and make people—particularly young women travelling at night—more aware of the possibility of rogue drivers. My concern, and the key concern of those I have mentioned, is that the new clause makes that possibility more likely and more difficult to police. It will increase the number of unlicensed people who can drive a PHV and, therefore, the potential for rogue drivers and rogue vehicles. It will make identifying them more difficult, so the problem will be harder to police. As the Committee will no doubt have gathered, we oppose new clause 9 and will scrutinise it further on Report should it become part of the Bill.
New clause 10 sets a standard duration of three years for taxi and minicab drivers’ licences, and a standard duration of five years for minicab operators’ licences. Industry and unions have expressed concern during the limited time available. The National Private Hire Association and the Institute of Licensing have said that the clause would remove flexibility from councils, and there are already concerns about how effectively drivers are scrutinised. The Minister made some reference to that. There are also concerns that the ring-fenced income from renewing licences would have to be replaced from elsewhere and that, as a consequence, councils may be less likely to obtain information material to each individual licence.
Finally, I turn to new clause 11, which is heralded as a liberalising measure because it would allow minicab operators to subcontract a minicab booking to another operator licensed in a different licensing district. The Minister referred to that as a liberalising measure. He also gave the impression that, by enabling their local providers to subcontract, it would give passengers more choice, because they could then use their local provider. However, that would mean lengthening the supply chain. Indeed, passengers would not be using their local provider; they would be using a subcontractor. Even if responsibility lay with the local provider, as the Minister set out, the subcontractor would be driving and operating the vehicle.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that without these changes, the passenger, having made a phone call to their local operator, will be told, “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” and will then have to make another phone call—possibly a series of phone calls—to identify an operator who can help?
I thank the Minister for that intervention. Clearly we are not saying that the current licensing regime is beyond improvement—indeed, we hope the Law Commission will identify improvements in its work—and there certainly needs to be better provision for flexibility. However, rushing through the new clauses in this way, outside the full context of the Law Commission’s ongoing work, risks raising concerns that will not necessarily be addressed by that review, particularly as we have not had the final report.
When I book a minicab, I expect to get a car from the company I booked with. Allowing operators to subcontract bookings to cabs licensed in other districts breaks that link. I know from many of the submissions made to me and from talking to other hon. Members that there is a real concern that this will precipitate a race to the bottom in licensing. Specifically, the new clause risks creating minicab flags of convenience. It effectively allows minicab operators to get around local licensing conditions and would also make effective enforcement of local licensing by licensing authorities impossible, thereby further driving down standards. Brighton and Hove Streamline argues that
“By sub-contracting a booking an operator devalues the customer’s right of choice. In a competitive market, the customer will select the preferred supplier and there may be particular reasons why the customer has a particular bias against the sub-contracted operating company or driver(s). It may be argued that the customer can refuse the pick-up but, again, this is a diminution of service.”
I have been impressed by the work of Northumbria police with Vera Baird, our police and crime commissioner, to ensure that taxis and drivers of passenger-carrying vehicles are sensitised to the dangers that women in particular may face late at night when seeking to return home in a potentially inebriated state. The terrible and tragic case of a young woman who was raped twice after a taxi driver refused to take her because she appeared unsteady on her feet has emphasised the importance of that work in Northumbria and Newcastle and inspired us to continue doing it.
As well as decreasing customer choice, the new clause could undermine licensing and enforcement by local authorities, as it undermines their ability to control standards in their areas and could therefore put passengers at risk. As Unite said in its submission:
“Many authorities have policies governing the appearance of both taxis and PHVs to ensure that they are distinctive to the public”— that is the case in Newcastle.
“This proposal will make members of the public vulnerable to illegal pickups when the (licensed) vehicle is being driven by an unlicensed driver.”
We strongly oppose the clause for those reasons.
We oppose the Government’s piecemeal changes to the regulation of private hire vehicles, which are completely inappropriate in the context of the comprehensive reforms proposed by the Law Commission. Interestingly, as a consequence of the precipitate nature of the clauses that are being appended, trade unions, industry bodies and a wide range of others have expressed their criticisms to me and many other Members. Unite’s submission states:
“These proposals/amendments are a last minute attempt by the DfT to get something on the statute books with no proper full consultation with stakeholders having…taken place and without waiting for the Law Commission’s draft Bill.”
As I know from my attempts to study it, taxi and minicab regulation is complex. Ministers should be working collaboratively with the industry, drivers and passenger groups, rather than rushing contentious clauses through Parliament—I hope I have shown that the clauses are contentious—in this manner, with barely a week’s notice. The consultation on the new clauses has been completely inadequate. There has not been time properly to consider their consequences, and I urge the Committee to reject them.
Although I agree with the shadow Minister that the Minister’s speech on new clause 10 was about new clause 11 and vice versa, from a procedural perspective saying that the new clauses were tabled at the last minute is a mistake because this is not the last minute—this is the end of the Bill Committee. The Bill will be considered on Report, and it will then go to the House of Lords. The Bill will potentially come back to the House of Commons. It does not help to exaggerate the situation. I think it is very good that the Government have tabled these new clauses in Committee, rather than on Report.
The hon. Gentleman, like me, serves on the Procedure Committee. Has he forgotten the Committee’s report, to which we both signed up, that said that the problem is that the Government table far too many new clauses on Report that we do not have adequate time to consider? My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central is entirely right to say that if we want decent scrutiny, Committee is the only opportunity to have it.
The point is that the proposals were going to be in a draft taxi, minicab and private hire Bill due to be published next month. All of a sudden—and this is unexpected, however the hon. Gentleman wants to dress it up—the proposals have been thrown into this Bill, which by any stretch of the imagination is a dog’s breakfast, to be banged through quickly.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a Christmas tree Bill with lots of baubles, but this is not the last minute. For people to argue that this is the last minute is procedurally wrong.
I am sorry, but I was looking forward to a three-hour peroration by the hon. Gentleman. New clauses 9, 10 and 11 are grouped together, and I emphasise that the industry and the relevant trade unions were expecting a draft Bill to be published next month. I declare an interest because I am a proud member of Unite, the union of Ernie Bevin, Jack Jones and various other luminaries.
I am told by Unite that Baroness Kramer, the Minister in the other place, was asked for a meeting next month on what would be the draft Bill, and what perhaps still will be the draft Bill. I am not impugning her motives, but she said that she would not have a meeting until the draft Bill was published. Unite members and others active in the industry—members of trade unions, and people who are not members—now find that these three new clauses seem to have been added at the last minute and to be being rushed through by the Government.
There does not seem to be a clear reason why. Perhaps there is some incentive to Ministers from the DFT to get something on the statute book by the time of the next election, because at the moment there might not be anything. Perhaps that is why they are not waiting for the draft Bill: it is a bit late in the day. Nevertheless, these three new clauses should be in the draft Bill.
To follow on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central was discussing, when the public lose their right to choose the provider of their lift home, often late and night and while they are travelling alone—I am talking mainly about women passengers—there is the potential for a dangerous situation. When somebody rings a particular provider, it is often because they have faith and trust in that provider. When a different provider turns up, that provider might not be trustworthy, and they will certainly not be known to the passenger.
Let me bring to bear an example that might reinforce my hon. Friend’s point. I got a taxi home with my wife from an event a few years ago. About a minute after we got out, my wife realised that she had left her handbag in the taxi. We phoned the taxi company instantly to get the taxi driver, who was heading to his next fare, to look for the handbag. To cut a long story short, it never appeared. The more complicated that relationship is, the more difficult it is to trace who has the handbag, for example, and the more difficult it is for the police to investigate the theft.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that worthwhile example. The other point that I want to address—again, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central has already made it—is that allowing people with ordinary licences to drive private hire vehicles could create situations in which people are vulnerable to illegal pick-ups.
May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the issue that he raised about contacting a preferred private hire vehicle operator? This is about scenarios in which people contact their preferred private hire vehicle operator but are told, “We do not have a cab available and cannot help you”—end of conversation. They put the phone down, and they then have to make a call to a completely different private hire vehicle operator. In the scenario that we are discussing, they will make the call to their preferred private hire vehicle operator, which will then subcontract the job to another firm, which must comply with all the licensing requirements.
Well, I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of consumer choice; that is what they are always telling us. They are in favour of everything at one time or another, but I would have thought that they were in favour of that. The scenario that the Minister described does not normally happen. What normally happens is that the private hire operator says, “We haven’t got a cab available, but we recommend this company,” but it is up to the passenger to make that decision, not the provider of the service. It is a matter of consumer choice. I sometimes have my suspicions when it comes to consumer choice, because at times I am accused of being old Labour. However, in this case, I am all in favour of it.
The hon. Gentleman has just said that the person has called their preferred private hire vehicle operator. Is he now saying that their preferred private hire vehicle operator is not capable of identifying a subcontractor who is a responsible party?
May I give an example that might help the Minister understand what sort of situation we are talking about? Let us say that the customer had a former husband who was a taxi driver for a certain company, and the customer decided that they never wanted to use that company again because the relationship had ended in an unfortunate fashion. They phone a different taxi company because they want to use it, and that company subcontracts the job to the company that the customer never wanted to use again.
The answer is no, Mr Chope. I should have said at the beginning that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again.
Moving on to the final point, which I have been trying to make for the last few minutes, as my hon. Friend mentioned, many authorities have a distinctive livery sported by their private hire vehicles. If people with an ordinary licence are allowed to drive a private hire vehicle with livery, it makes people more vulnerable to illegal pick-ups.
Going back to my first point, the three new clauses have been introduced unexpectedly—the industry did not expect it to happen—and I hope that the Government might, even now, say that they will defer them until the publication of the draft Bill next month.
It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Mr Chope. I apologise for having been absent for a period; I was in another Committee and it was unavoidable.
I support strongly what my hon. Friends have said. To declare an interest, I am a member of the GMB union, which represents many thousands of taxi and cab drivers. I am also a regular user of cabs and taxis in my town and jurisdiction of Luton, especially since I have had a certain indisposition.
I strongly support what my hon. Friends said about locality, local control, people knowing who they are engaging and so on. Indeed, passengers’ safety must be the first priority. Having the cabs and taxis in good mechanical order is also important, as is looking after the livelihoods of taxi drivers, who are represented by unions that lobbied us and spoke to us, making strong points. We ought to retain strong licensing control by local authorities and not liberalise in any way from where we are now. Indeed, it is possible that stronger legislation to regulate in future, rather than liberalisation, would be helpful.
One has to talk about particular jurisdictions. Luton, which I have the honour to represent, is a contained area and one tends to get to know the cab drivers and cab companies—many cab drivers are personal friends of mine—so I am familiar with what goes on. We are comfortable about that kind of relationship with one or another of the particular companies in our jurisdictions. Anything that goes beyond the boundaries of the local authority is not sensible. For example, I would be uneasy about people taking cabs from another jurisdiction in their own area.
That is the situation in Luton, but in some areas, such as London, which is much larger, the trade is much more anonymous than in many of our constituencies. In such areas in particular, regulation should be tight, because problems of abuse of passengers by unregulated minicab drivers have been particularly prevalent in the big cities such as London, because they are much more anonymous and people do not know who they are talking to.
Anything that increases familiarity, local control and proper democratic regulation by the local authority is the way to go. Deregulation is not the way to go. I am happy to support my hon. Friends in opposing the Government’s three new clauses and hope that the Minister withdraws them as common sense prevails.
First, I shall respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central in her opening remarks. She highlighted the fact that there were a large number of new clauses at the end of the Bill, but omitted to confirm that eight of them were hers, so if there are a large number, it is not as a result of the Government’s tabling them, but of the Opposition’s providing them for us to debate.
I think that the hon. Lady needs to make decisions about what standards she thinks are applicable to the new clauses that she is putting forward, but certainly, as I have mentioned before, I think that it would be appropriate for the Opposition to provide explanatory notes for the measures that they propose.
Indeed. I am sure that the Opposition would welcome the Government’s willingness to take on board their proposals. Often, the Opposition concentrate on the process. I understand why they do that, but often it is at the expense of the substance of what the Government are proposing.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very odd point. This is a Government Bill. Inevitably, we will want to make amendments and to apply new clauses at the end of the Bill. We are not in a position, in opposition, to bring in our own Bill, so of course we will table new clauses. The Government have the time to decide what will go in it. That is why it is important that there is time to consult properly on these measures.
The hon. Gentleman has made my point for me, in that he wants to concentrate on the process as opposed to what the Government are actually proposing. The first line of attack from the Opposition was that there was not enough consultation. I pointed out that the Law Commission consulted on this for a total of four months. That included the three measures that we are talking about. These are very specific, discrete measures. I did not hear from the Opposition an explanation as to why they felt—despite the discrete nature of the measures, the consultation that had been carried out through the Law Commission and the further consultation with eight bodies, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned, over 10 days in January 2014—that these discrete measures were such a risk to the public.
The Minister seems to believe that by calling these “discrete” measures, he makes them discrete, but it is certainly the case that, for example, the licence period and the ability to subcontract vehicles have implications both within and outside a licensing authority, so I do not understand how the measures can be called discrete.
The hon. Lady has highlighted the risks associated with the measures, which implies that they are not discrete in the way that the Government are saying. But let us consider what we have in London, for instance; the hon. Lady referred to the biggest market anywhere. Many of these proposals have been tried and tested and work effectively in what is the largest market for taxis. That is why I think that her concerns about safety are not justified.
Let us come to the substance of what the Government propose. Once the Law Commission has finished its review, which we expect to happen in April, we will of course listen to stakeholders’ views.
On new clause 9, would the Minister consider, as the Bill goes through Report stage and through the House of Lords, whether it would be useful to have some sort of visual representation that a vehicle is not being used for private hire at a time when there is a non-licensed driver, just to improve the safety position?
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. However, I think that what is fundamental about this is the enforcement aspect—ensuring that vehicles are checked—because of course even if there was a means of showing that a vehicle was or was not in use, that could still be turned on and off erroneously or illegally by someone who was not actually able to operate the vehicle, who was not licensed to operate the vehicle.
Why are the Government doing this now? Apart from the fact that they are discrete measures, the Government do not intend to introduce a dedicated taxi Bill in the final parliamentary Session, so there is only this opportunity to ensure that we put in place some of the measures that we think will make a substantial contribution to reducing burdens on the industry and improving facilities for passengers. This is the opportunity that we have; we do not have another opportunity in this Parliament.
What I am saying is that there is not an opportunity to bring forward a dedicated taxi Bill that would sweep up all the proposals from the Law Commission that the Government wanted to proceed with. Contrary to what the Opposition claim, this Government are running flat out and the Labour party will have the opportunity to scrutinise many challenging Bills after the Queen’s Speech. There will be no down time in Parliament so there is no slack that would allow us to provide an opportunity for a dedicated taxi Bill.
Is the Minister saying that the notion that there was a plan to bring forward a draft Bill next month is not the case; or was there a plan to bring forward a draft Bill next month but he does not think there is time? After all, we have timetabling. Personally, I am opposed to timetabling, but we have got it.
The Law Commission will come forward with its proposals in April, but I am saying that there is not a chance to bring a Bill forward. There is no parliamentary legislative slot available for a dedicated taxi Bill in the last Session.
To continue focusing on why we are taking these matters forward notwithstanding the Law Commission review process, we identified these changes and think they will have a beneficial impact on business. We have assessed the savings that will be derived from them and are satisfied that there will be benefits achieved by making these changes now. We do not think that the decision to proceed with them in any way undermines what the Law Commission review will come forward with.
Safety has been a focus of the debate and I reassure all members of the Committee that local authorities have powers to suspend or revoke driver licences. They have those powers to do it with immediate effect in cases where there are serious safety implications. Nothing we are doing in this Bill changes that. As I stated earlier, it is the case now, and continues to be, that they can check the records of drivers every three years with the CRB or the barring service. We have also added a new process, a helpful development, where drivers opt to sign up for the disclosure and barring system update service, and then the licensing authority will be alerted to any new convictions during the currency of a licence. This is an additional safety measure that the Government have put forward.
A lot of time was spent saying that subcontractors would in some way be a risk to passengers. Of course, the subcontractors have to comply with exactly the same requirements as the main contractor. So there is no issue that is exacerbated by safety because they comply with the same requirements as the contractor. On choice, we think that if passengers ring their preferred private hire vehicle operator asking for a journey to be undertaken and it has to be passed on to a subcontractor, perhaps because a vehicle is unavailable or the journey is a fair distance away from where the operator is, people should be allowed to make a choice. Labour Members seem to think that the choice is to call the preferred private hire vehicle operator, be told that, sorry, they cannot help, and then have them put the phone down. Clearly that is not much of a choice.
The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead said that helpful contractors will say: “I cannot help you, but here is the name of another firm that might be able to.” Perhaps some of them do that, but it still requires the passenger to undertake a further phone call, as opposed to being able to complete that journey with their preferred operator who will, I am sure, have ensured that they entered into subcontracting arrangements only with responsible subcontractors. The respectability of the preferred contractors will of course depend on their employing or working with subcontractors that are also good operators.
I hope that I have addressed all the points made. The measures are discrete, sensible and a way of ensuring, first, that there is deregulation, leading to significant savings in the private hire vehicle industry, and secondly, that although there are no safety implications, from a passenger perspective there is a greater degree of certainty about people being able to ring an operator and get the service delivered to them there and then, as opposed to being passed off with another phone number that they will need to call. I commend the new clauses to the Committee.