Prevention of child sexual exploitation and private hire vehicles

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 12th April 2016.

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“(1) The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 is amended as follows—

(a) after section 47(1) insert—

“(1A) A district council must carry out its functions under this section with a view to preventing child sexual exploitation”.

(b) at end of section 48 (1) insert—

“(c) a district council must carry out its functions under this section with a view to preventing child sexual exploitation”.

(2) Section 7 of the London Cab Order 1934 is amended as follows—

(a) after Section 7(2) insert—

“(2A) Transport for London must carry out its functions under this section with a view to preventing child sexual exploitation”.

(3) Section 7 of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 is amended as follows—

(a) after Section 7(2) insert—

“(3) The licensing authority must carry out its functions under this section with a view to preventing child sexual exploitation”.—(Carolyn Harris.)

This new clause would place local authorities under a duty to consider how they can prevent child sexual exploitation when they issue licences for taxis and private hire vehicles.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

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

Licensing authorities have a duty to protect children from harm. Horrific cases that we have seen on television, in connection with Rotherham, have highlighted the need for this amendment, which could bring us a step closer to making our communities safer for our most vulnerable children. We already place duties on authorities that license premises to sell alcohol to carry out functions with a view to protecting children from harm. This amendment would create similar duties for licensing authorities in relation to taxis and minicabs. We know that taxis and private hire vehicles often feature in cases of child sexual exploitation. Indeed, in February of this year, Mohammed Akram was found guilty of sexual activity with a child under the age of 16, which took place in the back of his cab. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

This is not to say that all drivers are inherently likely to be involved in these crimes. The vast majority of drivers are law-abiding citizens but, along with other night-time economy workers, they have a role to play in helping to keep young people safe. Licensing authorities have a role to play in raising awareness so that drivers can spot the signs of harm and know how to intervene. There have been examples of good practice in Oxford, but we should have good practice across the United Kingdom. We need much more consistency.

Barnardo’s has been working with a range of night-time economy workers across the country to help improve awareness of children at risk. It is a part of the move towards prevention, which we need to see in this area. Will the Government consider introducing new duties on licensing authorities so that communities can be confident that all taxi and minicab drivers are able to spot the signs of abuse, and can help to keep children safe?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East said, the new clause would place local authorities under a duty to consider child protection when they issue licences for drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles. We support it because we think it could lead to important safeguarding measures.

Taxi drivers do a fantastic job up and down the country. I could not happily live my life without them. More than 242,000 licensed vehicles in England provide transport for millions of people every day. Outside of rural areas, interestingly, there is a high satisfaction level—about 68%—with taxi and private hire services. The review of child exploitation in Oxford made it clear that taxi drivers can and do play a very positive role in tackling grooming and child exploitation. The report noted that taxi drivers had driven young girls to the police station when they were worried that the girls were being sexually exploited, and that they were well regarded across the city because of the role that they had played.

However, we have to recognise that in some of the grooming rings exposed in recent years taxi drivers have not played such a positive role. Taxi drivers have been reported as abusing their position of power when they collect young people. The independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham found:

“One of the common threads running through child sexual exploitation across England has been the prominent role of taxi drivers in being directly linked to children who were abused”.

This is, quite clearly, a problem that needs to be tackled. I believe that my hon. Friend’s amendment could pave the way for important safeguarding measures that, frankly, should already be in place. For example, a number of local authorities up and down the country have imposed “conditions of fitness” tests on taxi drivers. These can involve criminal record checks and even live reporting to licensing authorities if a taxi driver commits a criminal offence after they have been granted a licence. Realistically, I do not believe that a licensing authority could carry out its duty to promote the prevention of harm to children, which is what the new clause provides for, without conducting checks on all drivers.

The Department for Transport provides guidelines on how local authorities should assess the criminal records of those who wish to have a licence to drive a private hire vehicle. The guidelines state that authorities

“should take a particularly cautious view of any offences involving violence, and especially sexual attack.”

Those are proportionate and appropriate words. However, because local authorities have discretion to interpret what is meant by a “fit and proper” person to drive a private hire vehicle, not all private hire vehicle drivers outside London are even subject to a criminal record check. We should consider reversing that; I believe that this proposed statutory duty to protect would have precisely that effect.

Other good practice can be considered. In Oxford, taxi drivers have been trained how to respond if they believe that their customers are victims of sexual exploitation. The independent review suggests there is evidence that that training is working. With a statutory duty in place to promote the prevention of child sexual exploitation, we could see such practices replicated across the country. Will the Minister say what measures the Government have put in place to ensure that best practice, like that in Oxford, can be shared across the country?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I hope that I am going to cheer everybody up—spoiler alert! I am not going to repeat the arguments made by the hon. Member for Swansea East and the shadow Minister, who have summed up the problem exactly. We have been working closely with the Local Government Association and others to ensure that best practices are spread. I recently enjoyed a taxi ride from Stoke-on-Trent station to my constituency home, in which the taxi driver, without knowing who I was, told me all about the safeguarding training he had been through that day. It was very good to hear him share that knowledge with someone he thought was a complete stranger to it.

We still need to go further. I have been working with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Andrew Jones on the further reforms that are urgently needed on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing arrangements.

Although I absolutely agree with the spirit of the new clause, I suspect—the hon. Member for Swansea East may be shocked to hear this—that more will be required, with respect both to strengthening the Bill’s provisions and to making additional amendments to relevant legislation. I assure her that I am committed to delivering this change; we want to ensure, working with colleagues at the Department of Transport, that those exercising licensing functions have access to the powers and are subject to the appropriate duties that best ensure that our licensing arrangements provide the strongest possible protections. Once we have determined the best way forward, we will carefully consider what legislative vehicle is most appropriate to make any necessary changes. I cannot promise that that will be in this Bill, but it may be. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Lady will be content to withdraw her new clause.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I am happy to withdraw it. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, “You’ve made my day”. Thank you very much.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I think those were originally the words of Clint Eastwood.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 46