[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 13th November 2018.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 2:30 pm, 13th November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Task and finish group report on taxi and private hire licensing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to see the familiar faces of those who have been discussing the issue for a long time. I pay particular tribute to the former Transport Minister, Mr Hayes, who instigated the task and finish group’s review in this very Chamber some 18 months ago.

I will praise quite a few people in my speech, but the main praise must go to Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq, who has brought together a diverse range of voices from the industry and users to produce what my right hon. Friend Frank Field has called “a superb report”. Not everyone will agree with all of it—that is partly why we are here to debate it—but we all agree on our thanks to the professor for producing it.

Let me give a couple of quotations from the report that set the scene rather well. The professor’s introduction says that he trusts

“that Parliament and the Department will lead the cultural change which is necessary to ensure that passengers, workers, operators, and neighbouring authorities are treated fairly. I look forward to the Government’s prompt response to this report in order to maintain the momentum for improvement. Undue delay would risk public safety.”

If one message comes out of our debate, I hope that is it: undue delay would risk public safety.

We have only an hour and a half, so I will not go through the report line by line; that needs to be done on another day when legislation is introduced. However, perhaps there is a little to be said about how we got here, or possibly about how we did not get here. I am afraid that the Government have to take some responsibility.

In paragraph 3.7 on page 16, the professor refers to the Law Commission’s 2011 review and notes that

“it is deeply regrettable that the Government has not yet responded to the report and draft bill which the Commission subsequently published in 2014. Had the Government acted sooner the concerns that led to the formation of this Group may have been avoided.”

That seems to me quite a strong charge, and quite a strong point. However, we are where we are. Looking back tells us something, but we have to concentrate on looking forward. I very much hope that we will get a strong response from the Minister, whom I congratulate on his recent promotion; perhaps it was not in circumstances that he would have sought, but I commend his predecessor for her very principled decision.

Many thanks are owed to those who contributed strongly to the report, some of whom are in the Gallery today. I highlight the work of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, GMB, Unite the union, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, Guide Dogs, Transport for London—Helen Chapman and Val Shawcross have both spoken personally to me about the issue—and the Local Government Association. I must also praise the cross-party approach that has been taken, and I have had good help and support from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Ms Ghani, in promoting my private Member’s Bill.

I want to say a little about where my Bill has got to, how the report refers to it and how I hope it will go forward, and then pick up on one or two of the more controversial issues in the report that bear discussion. First, however, let me say how extraordinary the industry is and how dramatically it has changed, even since the Law Commission report—to be honest, if the Government ever finally responded to that report, I suspect that they would find it was way out of date.

We have seen huge changes in the past few years, with changing technologies and huge numbers of private hire vehicles and taxis on our streets. I do not think everyone quite realises the scale of the industry: there are now 285,400 licensed taxis and private hire vehicles and 361,500 driver licences, of which more than 137,000 are in London. The number of private hire vehicles in London has increased by 120% since 2005.

Behind the numbers, there are many different stories, and a point that I have consistently tried to make is that they are not always the same. The all-party parliamentary group on taxis, chaired by my hon. Friend Wes Streeting, produced a report last year that stimulated the debate that I referred to earlier—an excellent report, but, as I said at the time, somewhat London-focused. That is not to say that London is not hugely important, but any solution that we suggest has to work not just for London, which operates under different legislation anyway, but for the rest of the country. That is part of the challenge.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reports published by the all-party group and by the task and finish group indicate that we need new primary legislation to adapt to the changes in the taxi and private hire sector that he is outlining? That legislation should include national minimum standards to ensure that we protect passenger safety and security.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I will come on to that point, because one of the headlines in the report is that we need consistent national standards; the question is the extent to which they can be tailored or lifted to suit appropriate local circumstances. First, however, let me say something about accessibility issues. Our London taxis have a fantastic record: all 21,000 are wheelchair-accessible, but the story is not the same across the country. I am told that in metropolitan areas outside London, 83% of taxis are wheelchair-accessible, but in some rural areas the figure falls as low as 15%. One of the challenges that we face is making our taxi and private hire fleet more accessible to people throughout the country.

There is a lot of variation in the approach to disability awareness training, which only 41% of local authorities require for taxi drivers and only 38% require for private hire vehicle drivers. Over the past few years, the percentage of local authorities that require taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to complete training on the subject of child sexual abuse or exploitation has risen to 70%, partly in response to some very sad incidents in some parts of the country. However, that leaves nearly 100 licensing authorities that still do not require drivers to undertake such training.

I became interested in the subject when I had the privilege of serving as a shadow Transport Minister for a couple of years. When I later had the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, I chose to try to do something about safety issues, on which there is cross-party consensus. Since I introduced my Bill—the Licensing of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill—some 18 months ago, I have had the opportunity to discuss the issue with enforcement officers and officials from Knowsley to London and with taxi and private hire firms from Brighton to Manchester.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. The Select Committee on Transport recently visited Bristol, where we saw problems with traffic congestion, including the number of private hire vehicles from outside the city that were causing additional air pollution and congestion problems. He cited huge figures for the number of private hire vehicles—is there not an overwhelming case to cut the number outside London?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

My hon. Friend and I had a fascinating trip to Bristol with the Transport Committee yesterday and, from that, I observe that the same kinds of issue crop up all around the country in different forms. For some years before I came to the House, and then as a constituency Member, I tried to understand the complexities of the taxi and private hire industry in my own constituency in and around Cambridge. Exactly the same issues arose, with licensing standards in a city often set at one level, but many private hire vehicles came in from an adjacent area. We heard that yesterday in Bristol, where the vast majority of private hire vehicles are actually registered in South Gloucestershire, creating a conundrum for the people and local council of Bristol. That goes to the heart of one of the questions, and to the point made earlier by Theresa Villiers, which is that of national standards.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The point that he is making is very pertinent to South Yorkshire, where we had the terrible child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham. As a consequence, both Rotherham and Sheffield have very high licensing standards for our taxis, with CCTV required in Rotherham. However, operators and licensed drivers from other areas can come in and completely undercut those measures, as well as all the efforts to tackle the prevalence of grooming gangs and their ability to exploit young children in South Yorkshire. I add my voice to the cross-party call for national minimum standards, which are vital to prevent such exploitation.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That was one of the issues that I spent much of my time discussing with people—trying to get that balance, with very high standards that we should rightly expect where there are specific problems, but without damaging an industry in other areas by putting undue costs and burdens on it, which could leave people in some areas with no taxi or private hire vehicle service at all. It is a challenge, yes.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on the report. Equally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), because he has done a lot of work on the matter, which I have discussed with him. At the same time, we should pay tribute to the ex-Minister, Mr Hayes. We have had a number of meetings and, in all fairness, as we are being cross-party, he was the man who initiated the report in the first place. He should get a lot of credit for that.

Having said that, we have a similar problem in Coventry, and there have been a number of a incidents between the private hire taxis and drivers from Uber—let us be frank about that. To my way of thinking, the report should be implemented in full. People tend to forget that, originally, it was the coalition that weakened the legislation, but we are being cross-party, so I will not go too far down that road. Often, some of the drivers work 12 to 13 hours a day, just on a minimum. In fact, a documentary set in the west midlands was on a couple of weeks ago, in which someone had gone out and spent the day with a driver, who was just making ends meet. The situation is not fair on drivers, who should be given proper employment rights, like everyone else, and the zero-hours contracts should be stopped. I hope that the Minister will address that and put it right, whether it takes primary legislation or not.

In actual fact, the black cab is made in Coventry. Two years ago, everyone was paid off, but a new investor came in and the business is now thriving. But this situation threatens that, so lots of jobs are at stake as well.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is so valuable to hear the different stories from around the country. Some years ago, I visited Coventry and talked to some of the taxi drivers represented by Unite about exactly some of the issues he raises. However, although the issues and problems are similar, they are not the same everywhere and will not require exactly the same solutions. That is the conundrum we face. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the report, because issues such as the ones he mentioned—a complex mix, especially in relation to rewards and employment protection for drivers, which I will come on to—are part of the package.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The hon. Gentleman is being very kind in giving way. There is a lot in the report about the influence of new technology on how the taxi fleet should operate. He might be coming on to this, but what impact does he think new technology will have on the taxi industry?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. I fear that were I to divert into a disquisition on the impact of new technology it would be very lengthy. I will say only that it has clearly had a huge impact over recent years and that, as so often with new technology, the impact is mixed. The new app-based technologies have, without doubt, not only created great opportunities for some but led to difficult working conditions for others. Some people, for example, question where some of the operators pay their taxes—no pun intended—and so on. A whole range of issues have come up, and the challenge for legislators and this place is to make some attempt to keep up. That, I am afraid, is one of my criticisms of the Government. As the years have passed, the legislative void has opened more and more problems, leaving local authorities and enforcement officers with considerable problems. We have seen people out there in the real world respond quite quickly to technological change whereas, quite frankly, we seem to struggle to set the right frameworks.

Going back to the report, one of its strengths is that in a relatively short document of 30 or 35 pages it has managed, in language that most of us—and probably the wider world—can understand, to summarise a range of issues in a readily understandable way, including sections on working practices and changes in technology. I suspect that if a Committee were to take it forward, or legislation was necessary, it would probably end up being a much longer document, as the Law Commission document of some years ago was. It is, however, welcome that we have a comprehensible and comprehensive account that deals with a number of the issues. One of the key recommendations is national minimum standards, and—this is the key point, in recommendation 2—we could build on them.

My Bill looked at the other side of the coin, which is enforcement. Anyone who goes out with taxi or private hire drivers, or with enforcement teams, will pretty quickly realise that the situation is very complicated and, indeed, it is made much more so by the examples that we have referred to—drivers might be licensed somewhere else, and enforcement officers can apply rules only in their own area. To put it simply, the system is clearly not working. My Bill would have made it possible for local enforcement officers to enforce in their area against drivers from another area plying their trade. I am pleased that recommendation 9 in the report makes a similar proposal.

My Bill also suggested a national database. In the existing situation, sadly—we have seen some notorious incidents—someone can lose their licence in one area but still apply to a different authority for another. Because a local authority has no way of knowing about any previous record, it can issue another licence to a driver who, because people work out of area, can be back on the same streets where the local authority had tried to protect the public against them, sometimes within a matter of weeks. The intention of my Bill was therefore to create a national database; local authorities would record their refusals, revocations and suspensions, and any authority issuing a new licence could check that database.

That might sound like a complicated process but, through the work of the Local Government Association, such a database has been established—not at a huge cost; at a fairly minor one—and it is run by the National Anti-Fraud Network. The problem at the moment, however, is that it is voluntary, which probably means that, as so often is the case, all the people who comply and do the right things take part, whereas the ones whom we seek to catch out, or to check up on, might not. One of the recommendations in the report is that that should become mandatory.

I was extremely grateful to the Government and the Minister for supporting my Bill, and it was worked up very effectively. Sadly, as sometimes happens to a private Member’s Bill, it fell foul of one or two individuals, which is a great shame, because we might well see incidents over the next few months or years that could have been prevented had the legislation gone through with all-party support. But we are where we are and importantly, the recommendation is in this report. The question is whether the Minister can find a way of taking it forward.

Of the 34 recommendations, many of which I think we would all agree with, I would like to comment on one or two. We have already talked about the national minimum standards. The report retains the two-tier approach to private hire vehicle and taxi licensing that sometimes has been questioned. The cross-border issue, which has already been referred to, has been one of the most controversial in recent times. It is directly affected by new technologies that make the place-based legislation that we inherited and have been using for a long time seem woefully out of date. One of the strengths of the report is that the chairman was good enough to allow members of the committee to put their comments in the appendices at the end, so we can see the differing views.

The report comes down on the side of a recommendation that was also made by the all-party group last year—that journeys should start or end in the area in which the vehicle operator and driver are licensed. There are some downsides to that; in some places that could make life a little more difficult and complicated, but on balance it seems to be the right way to go. I am sure that others wish to comment on that. Some say to me that implementing that could create great difficulties, including unnecessary driving to and from destinations; potential damage; problems for chauffeur services, particularly to airports—that is a very extensive trade, although most of us hope it may be diminished to try to improve our air quality and surface access to airports. It does not seem to be beyond the bounds of possibility to find a way through those difficulties. A close reading of some of the comments in the appendices shows perhaps a growing consensus that that basis could be achieved without necessarily causing the complete set of problems that is claimed.

The other controversial proposal, recommendation 8, is a cap on private hire vehicle numbers. Those who have followed these debates for many years will know that there was an extensive period of discussion about whether there should be a cap on hackney carriages. My city is one that has been through both, and the cap has been widely considered to be for the best for everyone. The evidence in the report from Helen Chapman on behalf of Transport for London puts it very well, and my hon. Friend Grahame Morris, who is no longer in his place, made reference to it following our visit to Bristol yesterday. The congestion levels in our cities are partly attributable to the significant rise in private hire vehicles, and to other issues as well. To tackle the air quality issues, local authorities need the opportunity to consider a cap. There is not a blanket suggestion that numbers will be capped everywhere; there would have to be a public interest test and it would have to be part of a wider strategy. It seems that that, too, is the way forward.

My final general comments are on workers’ rights. The report rightly says that there are bigger, wider issues that go beyond the taxi and private hire industry. Obviously, there are proposals from the Taylor review. This is a controversial and contested area, and I certainly would not suggest that the issues are simple. I fear there is growing evidence that some of the rates for drivers, even using the new technologies, are being forced downwards. There is not exactly an equal balance of power for potentially vulnerable workers.

Action should be taken; I want stronger support for drivers. The suggestions made in the report are driven by passenger safety, which is very important, but it has been pointed out to me by people who work in the industry—Unite, Steve McNamara and others from the LTDA—that some of them have been tried before. Having a tachograph in a cab is different from having it in a lorry or a bus—there is much more waiting time in a cab. We will have to find other ways of dealing with that issue, rather than those suggested in the report. I agree with Steve McNamara that if drivers were better recompensed and wages were not being driven so low, there would be less incentive to work long hours. We need evidence—that may require more work—to know exactly where long hours are leading to safety issues. In the end, the overriding issue has to be safety.

I return to where I began. In the introduction I quoted, the chairman clearly says that there must not be further delay and prevarication. He says:

“Undue delay would risk public safety.”

That is a strong message. There have been too many years of delay. This is a hugely important industry for many people, especially in areas where public transport can no longer provide the kind of 24-hour service that people need to get to work and to go about their business. It is a fantastic industry, with a proud tradition and an important future. The problem is that a few people sometimes abuse the licensing system and create some of the awful incidents that there have been in some parts of the country.

We owe it to the industry, to the people working hard in it and to passengers to ensure they are safe. In this report we have an opportunity to move swiftly to implement a range of things that are not contentious and to take some decisions—as Governments ought to do—on some of the things that may be more contentious. There would be widespread support for a Government who implemented this report pretty well in full. That would make our country safer and the industry much more secure, and would offer it a vibrant future.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I will call the first of the Front-Bench spokespersons at 3.30. If they keep their remarks below 10 minutes each, Mr Zeichner will be able to make some closing remarks. Four Back-Benchers wish to speak; if they keep their contributions at around eight minutes, everyone will have the chance to speak. I call Iain Duncan Smith.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green 2:57 pm, 13th November 2018

Thank you, Sir David. I congratulate Daniel Zeichner on securing this debate, and I echo his congratulations to Mohammad Abdel-Haq on what is essentially a comprehensive and good report. We do not have to agree with everything in it, but I hope the Government will realise that there is much agreement across all parties on the need to drive a lot of it forward to make the changes necessary to improve taxis across the UK.

I will focus my remarks fairly narrowly on London, and particularly on the effect on black cabs of the enormous increase in the number of hire vehicles, which is mostly down to Uber. The people who have quite rightly lobbied me to ask me to be present at this debate have found that their incomes have fallen quite considerably. I want to focus on some of the issues that have arisen, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

Uber is massively adding to London’s congestion; the figures show that. The hon. Gentleman made a point about the increased numbers of vehicles on the road. I think a significant amount of that is down to the arrival of Uber. It is time to look at its business model. I hope we all agree that Uber does not pay its fair share towards the upkeep of the roads that it runs on, through the normal tax base. To echo his comments, whether or not people like the flexibility of its business model—I think flexibility is important, and that the gig economy opens up huge amounts of competition—there comes a moment when we must recognise that Uber drivers are treated pretty unfairly. They are scraping by in many cases and often are not very well supported by the organisation that says it does not employ them, which I always find rather bizarre, because it does. The idea that somehow they are going to be incredibly successful as a direct result of this has mostly proved quite incorrect.

There is a lot of talk about how Uber got prices down, but the truth is that its model is about arriving in an area, undercutting everything else there and eventually driving people out of business, and building up a model that allows it to raise its prices. I am interested to hear that it even uses an algorithm that allows it to jack up its prices when there is demand, whereas the black cabs that it competes with are not allowed to do that. Black cabs have a fixed price set for them: they charge the same figure, regardless of whether one cannot find a taxi and it is pouring with rain. That is an area that causes great concern. Many people, in my constituency and others, who ply their trade in black cabs comment that this has led to all sorts of problems. Often, black cab drivers get complaints from passengers that they have recently been paying much more when taking an Uber, and they wonder why that is.

I recognise that the report covered much of that. The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned an area that I think we need to focus on much more. This is not just a free-for-all. After all, the scale of the increase in traffic on the roads in London is quite staggering. Notwithstanding that, the previous Mayor managed to significantly cut down various traffic lanes for reasons to do with cycling. I am sure we all want more cyclists on the road, but the reality is that as a result, in London there are more cars on slightly fewer traffic lanes.

The number of private hire vehicles has increased by more than 50%. Transport for London data shows that between 2011 and 2017 there was a 39% increase in private hire licences, taking the total to over 87,000 vehicles, which is up by 40,000 in the space of only a few years, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct; in fact, I would have liked him to have stayed on the subject for longer, because it is such an important point.

The side effect of the increase is significant, and we London MPs see it every single day. We see complaints about productivity in London being affected dramatically by the inability of vehicles to get around and make deliveries, because the scale of traffic inside the city is astonishingly large. It is a matter that the Government need to look at carefully, because of the way that the gratification of some people becomes a serious problem for others.

I am conscious of time, but I want to touch on another point as quickly as I can. I am concerned—anybody should be—that Uber’s business model, which I mentioned earlier, is alright for a short period of time when things are getting going. We want companies to get those opportunities and not be trammelled by too much tax—I am an absolute believer in that. However, when an organisation is as large as this and so dominant, there is a genuine reason why we need to look again at the business model. The figures that are most startling are that Uber paid £411,000 in corporation tax in 2016, on a turnover of £23.3 million, and that masks a number of payments. It has set itself up in Holland.

I understand about competition, but my concern is about who ultimately will pay for the roads and the condition that they are in if Uber will not. Black cabs are contributing through their tax and national insurance, as well as other private hire vehicles, many of which have been used regularly and are absolutely above board. They all have to pay through tax and through the way their company tax and regulations are applied, but Uber gets away with making next to no contribution to the state of the roads that it uses in plying its business. Uber keeps saying that it is not the one plying that trade; rather it is the drivers, who are independent, even though the drivers would not be able to ply their trade if Uber was not there. It would be a very different game.

I want to mention some constituents who have seen me about this issue: Ron Nicholson, Martin Franks, Mark Diggin, Steven Tyson and Trevor Board. They are all straightforward people who are trying to earn a living. London’s black cab system is arguably the most admired in the world. It is on all the posters, and I notice that the Ministers for Trade go out selling the idea of coming here to get black cabs. We regulate it incredibly highly. It has to have disabled access; I am enormously proud of that fact. Unlike places such as New York, where it tends to be more of a free-for-all, we genuinely have a seriously good service, with straightforward people who want to do a good job. We regulate black cabs, yet because of the app, they are in competition with an organisation that has to do none of those things, and which has broken the point about hailing from the road. The app makes that almost ancient history. The reality is that Uber drivers are, in essence, getting passengers from the road.

We need to rethink this. We cannot have it both ways; we have to decide. Either we admire and want to continue with a service of regulated vehicles and drivers that produces an excellent service, particularly in central London, or we do not. We cannot have this unfair competition and this unlevel playing field, with higher congestion as a result.

I urge the Minister to take into consideration the consensus, among both London MPs and those who come from other constituencies and use the excellent service here. Now is the time not just to take the report into consideration and do something about the issue, but to genuinely ask the question: do we really value what we have? If we do not, we will lose it, and if we lose it, we will end up in an absolute free-for-all.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North 3:07 pm, 13th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner on securing the debate, and on his consistent work over the past three years in keeping these issues on the agenda, not least through his private Member’s Bill. I hope that as a result of this debate and the excellent report we are here to consider, many of the commendable measures he suggested through his Bill will finally find their way on to the statute book.

I rise to speak today as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on taxis. This is a particularly important issue for my constituency; well over 1,000 of my constituents are either licensed London taxi drivers or private hire drivers. During its short lifespan, the all-party parliamentary group has sought to make the case for urgent and far-reaching reform of the taxi and private hire licensing architecture. As we have seen this afternoon, we have a growing and strong cross-party membership.

There are three points I want to make to the Minister. I congratulate him on his promotion in the reshuffle, and I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Ms Ghani for her diligent attention to these issues and for her engagement with the all-party parliamentary group.

Firstly, there is strong cross-party consensus on the need for urgent change; that is an important point to make, particularly given the current arithmetic of Parliament. I hope that Ministers will be reassured that if they bring forward legislation at the first opportunity, as I hope they will, they will find strong cross-party support for the proposals that we are discussing today.

Secondly, passenger safety and accessibility must be at the heart of the system. We have seen in two reports—the report published by the all-party parliamentary group on taxis and the excellent report we are discussing today—that clearly the current system has fallen well short of our expectations, and of the bar that we should rightly set to keep our constituents safe.

Third, we urgently need to address the working conditions of many people, particularly those working in the private hire industry. It should not be left to unions such as the GMB to drag big multinational corporations through the courts to ensure that workplace rights and protections, which have been fought for and won by working people over the best part of a century, are respected.

I thank Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq for an absolutely outstanding report. I also pay tribute to Mr Hayes, who was an excellent Minister. We would not have the report were it not for his efforts. We welcomed his engagement as a Minister with the all-party group and we are delighted he is able to join us this afternoon to add his considerable voice and weight to the debate. To his enormous credit, Mohammed Abdel-Haq has engaged widely with others in producing the report. The quality and quantity of that engagement is reflected in the report’s strength. There will obviously be differences and competing interests, but he has succeeded in listening to everyone, engaging with them properly, and coming up with a comprehensive and coherent set of reforms that will address the widespread concerns of many different parts of the taxi and private hire industry.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I echo my hon. Friend’s remarks about the professor, who did a considerable amount of work and produced a good report. In fact, I met him with a trade union official. I was remiss earlier in not identifying the professor as having done a hell of a lot of good work on the report.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and thank him for his consistent engagement with the all-party group, for raising the issues, and for bringing them to the attention of Ministers.

The report contains a whole package of reforms, and I strongly emphasise to Ministers and the Department that they ought to be implemented in full. We have already heard that there is clear consensus on the need for national minimum standards that apply across the country. My hon. Friend Louise Haigh alluded to child sexual exploitation and local issues. Of course, for very good reasons, there will always be areas where local authorities will want to enhance standards and protections, and develop appropriate local tools and solutions in order to regulate the taxi and private hire industry properly in their area, but our starting point has to be clear minimum standards. I think that point is accepted by the Department. Taking that into account, I will turn to why I think it is important to give some of the recommendations an airing, not least because persuasion might still be required.

On cross-border hire, as we have heard, local authorities in places such as Rotherham and Sheffield have had particular issues with safeguarding children and young people. Girls have been sexually assaulted and raped, and private hire vehicles have been used to carry out that dreadful exploitation and those horrendous crimes. Where local authorities have rightly responded and put in place enhanced safety standards and protections, it cannot be right that people can flout those protections simply by getting their vehicles registered in another licensing authority where there are lower standards. That wild west of regulation is where we find ourselves.

The issue is not only safety. I strongly believe that some licensing authorities give out licences like sweets because they enjoy the revenues. They know that the drivers securing the licences have no intention of driving in the licensing authority area where the licence is issued, and they know that the drivers will be somebody else’s problem. That simply is not fair. It is not a sustainable position, but it is the position that we find ourselves in. The proposal to address that, whereby any journey must either start or finish in the area where the licence is issued, is common sense and practical. It is known as the A to B and B to A model, or ABBA for short.

Since we know that the Prime Minister is a big fan of ABBA, I hope that we will take on board the report’s recommendation to end the practice of cross-border hiring. It would stop local authorities thinking only of the “Money, Money, Money”. Local authorities support the proposals and the Local Government Association recognises the challenge. Lots of local authorities are victims of the practice, which is why the LGA issued the “SOS” in its briefing ahead of this debate, hoping that Ministers would take it on board; there is strong support for it, so I would not want Ministers to face their “Waterloo” if they did not. I promise that is the end of the ABBA references, but I hope Ministers will look carefully at the strong evidence for the need for change, and at the practical proposals.

It has been mentioned that licensing authorities in some parts of the country are small in scale, and some are in close proximity to each other, so there might need to be a pragmatic approach whereby drivers could operate across different licensing authorities, but we have to make it absolutely clear that that should not prevent drivers from being licensed in a number of authorities where they intend to work. Luckily, we have a London-wide licensing authority, but let us imagine for argument’s sake that we did not, and that drivers in my constituency in the London Borough of Redbridge also wanted to operate in Barking and Dagenham, Havering or Newham. They ought to be able to be licensed in those areas.

Local authorities might want to join together to create larger licensing areas. The Government ought to be permissive about such approaches, so that appropriate local solutions can be adopted, but we simply must end the wild west regulation. We must end the scope for drivers to flout important safety regulations, and end the practice of local authorities dishing out licences like sweets.

I turn to the proposal to give local authorities the power to cap the number of vehicles in their licensing area. It is important to emphasise that the proposal is for a permissive power. It certainly would not be the expectation—in fact, it would not be desirable—for every licensing authority to impose unnecessary caps, but particularly on the streets of London and in other big cities, the number of private hire vehicles has exploded beyond all reasonable proportions. The number of such vehicles in England reached record levels last year, having increased by 37% since 2011, whereas there was just a 3% increase in taxis. In London, the number of private hire vehicles jumped by 39% to 87,400, and the number of drivers increased further to 117,700.

The problem with the situation in London is that it does not benefit anybody. It does not benefit consumers, because even if they find it easier to order a private hire vehicle via an app, or to ring up a minicab office, it is no good to them if they are then stuck in heavy congestion trying to get to wherever they are going. It does not work for private hire drivers, who tell me they have seen their hourly wages go down. It is all right for a big multinational company with loads of drivers on their books, because they still rake in the revenues from the drivers’ hard work.

Companies such as Uber saturate the market, not just to drive the competition off the road, but at the expense of their own drivers. In central London, huge concentrations of Uber drivers operate in the same area, so they compete for the same number of customers. Even if, as we accept, the market for private hire in London has grown in recent years, they still compete for the same number of passengers, so what we get is a scourge of drivers driving round and round the streets of London, pumping toxic chemicals into our air and reducing our air quality. Even if those vehicles are not the most polluting, the congestion that they create on the streets of London allows the most polluting vehicles to pump more and more fumes into our air.

Those are some of the many reasons why the Mayor of London and Transport for London have requested from the Government powers to cap the number of private hire licences issued in London. I hope that is a permissive power that Ministers will consider carefully, and introduce, and I hope that they will put trust in local licensing authorities to make decisions appropriate to their areas. It does no good to keep talking about localism if we do not give local authorities the powers and tools that they need to do the job.

The third issue that needs to be addressed is the running sore of plying for hire. It is years since the Law Commission recommended that the Government introduce a statutory definition, but we have still not seen one. The situation should be clear, as the right to be available for immediate hire, and to be hailed on the street or at a taxi rank, is reserved to taxis alone. That has been a key privilege, in recognition of the fact that licensed taxis are held to higher standards, with higher hurdles to jump, and that taxis are more highly regulated than any other part of the system. However, it is increasingly clear that companies such as Uber flout the spirit of the law on plying for hire. It is time for the Government to strengthen the letter of the law, so that there can be no room for confusion or ambiguity about where we stand on the issue.

Finally, I would not expect mandatory disability equality training to be a source of controversy, but it has so far been a bit too difficult to persuade the Government of the need for reform in that area. As things stand, the Government are committed to guidance, rather than an obligation on drivers to undergo mandatory training. The problem, as we have heard from a range of disability charities, is that the experience of disabled people when using vehicles has not overall been a happy one, with the consistent service that we would expect. For example, Guide Dogs, which has a training facility in my constituency and has given evidence to the all-party parliamentary group on taxis, notes that discrimination against assistance dog owners is widespread. The worst offenders for refusing access to assistance dogs are private hire vehicle and taxi drivers. According to Guide Dogs, in a one-year period, 42% of assistance dog owners were refused by a PHV or taxi driver because of their assistance dogs. We have also heard complaints from people with a range of disabilities about their needs not being properly met. The proposal has widespread support from the Transport Committee, the Law Commission, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010, and the all-party parliamentary group on taxis.

I want to impress on Ministers again that the case for reform has been clearly made. The need for it is urgent; but happily for Ministers and Government business managers, as we have seen this afternoon from the contributions of Members from across the House, including former Cabinet Members and former Ministers with responsibility for this matter, there is clear cross-party support for the entire report. I hope that the Department for Transport will urgently proceed on the basis of that report.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I did not set a time limit, so I cannot really now limit the length of Member’s speeches. I shall probably be able to call only one more Member before the Front-Bench speeches. I call John Hayes.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 3:23 pm, 13th November 2018

Dr Johnson spoke of the virtues of travelling hopefully, but travelling hopefully depends on travelling efficiently, effectively, securely and, most of all, safely. The foreword to the excellent report before the House, by a group led by Professor Abdel-Haq, states that it was necessary

“to chart a future which ensured public safety for all”.

Public safety lies at the heart of the work, and of our endeavours in debating this today.

The recommendations in the report are focused on how taxis are licensed and how that licensing is enforced and complied with. Compliance and enforcement are critical to a number of the recommendations. Recommendations 23 and 24, on the database and the exchange of information between licensing authorities to check on the bona fides of applicants, are critical. Throughout the report there is a focus on ensuring that those who apply for licences are fit and proper people, on whom the public can rely.

A second issue, to which my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith referred, is the working conditions of drivers. It is clear to me that there is exploitation of drivers, whose working conditions are at best—I put it generously—variable, and that minimum standards are not currently being enforced. There is a need for urgent reform. I am not speaking, of course, of our black-cab drivers, who are largely self-employed and determine their own working day and year, and who, as my right hon. Friend is right to say, are celebrated, worldwide, for their quality. It seems extraordinary to me that we should jeopardise that worldwide reputation for what modern economists call a disruptor. I am not a great fan of the disruption of what works. I say that what matters more is doing what matters in the interests of the public, not fixing things that ain’t broke—which largely applies to black-cab drivers.

Recommendation 33 addresses working conditions, referring to the exploitation of drivers and the need to enforce the national living wage, while recommendation 34 addresses the question of restrictions, on safety grounds, on the number of hours that private hire vehicle drivers typically drive. There are other recommendations on the proper treatment of disabled people. It is appalling that some blind people have been refused their proper entitlement to take their guide dog with them on a private hire car journey, and I am delighted that there is a recommendation on that in the report.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Ms Ghani, has been remarkable in her willingness to listen, and I pay tribute to her, as well as to Professor Abdel-Haq. The cap that has been discussed by a number of Members seems to me to be localism in practice. We can hardly argue for reinforcing the role of local authorities in regulating the circumstances of private hire vehicles and taxis, and then say that they cannot make a judgment about the appropriate number of vehicles in a locality.

There is, however, something more worrying still to consider. We know that in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Newcastle taxis were a key element in allowing the widespread abuse of vulnerable young women. The use of taxis for criminal purposes is a direct consequence of a regulatory system that is simply not fit for purpose. We cannot allow that to continue and the Government would be unwise to hesitate for a moment in putting in place the changes necessary to avoid such an eventuality. That is about more than taxis. It is about public confidence, social cohesion and building communal faith in a system that works for all, as Professor Abdel-Haq has argued.

There cannot be a cherry-picking exercise. The report must be adopted in full, for there is not a single recommendation in it with which I do not agree. It would be quite wrong if the Government were to cherry-pick, and I know that the newly promoted Minister, who must be basking in the glory of his seemingly unstoppable rise up the greasy pole of politics, will be listening closely to the debate, and will want to work with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to make sure that the report is implemented speedily.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Can I ask you to wind up? I am going to have to move on.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Let me finish by saying this, and just this: Dr Johnson, as I said, spoke of travelling hopefully, but the Government now need to focus on arrival. The destination must be implementation of this report, with legislation where necessary, as soon as possible.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:30 pm, 13th November 2018

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. Like the speakers before me, I thank Daniel Zeichner for initiating this debate.

As we have heard, taxis are now an integral part of our lives, providing jobs and opportunities to people across the UK and enhancing transport links to our local and rural communities. The report by the task and finish Group on taxi and private hire vehicle licences, which we are focusing on today, urges the UK Government to overhaul the regulatory regime for the taxi and private hire vehicle sector and has recommended minimum standards for drivers, vehicles and operators in taxi and private hire vehicle licensing.

There have been calls for the UK Government to convene a panel of regulators, passenger safety groups and operator representatives to determine what those minimum safety standards should be. It has been suggested that licensing authorities should be able to set additional, higher standards in safety and all other aspects, depending on the requirements of particular local areas, as the hon. Member for Cambridge and Mr Hayes pointed out.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate Daniel Zeichner on bringing this debate to the House for consideration. The lines between a hackney carriage, a black taxi and a private hire vehicle have become blurred; there are those who know how to play those blurry lines to their benefit and those who have paid the price, through fines and even the loss of their licence. Does the hon. Lady agree that this report gives the opportunity for regulation, and that that regulation should be across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the blurring of the boundaries. I will go on to talk about this in a wee bit more detail, so I will simply say for now that taxi licensing is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are pretty slight but pretty important divergences across the UK that deal with the kind of issues that he has raised.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s research on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers revealed that only 46 out of 316 local authorities were able to provide it with detailed information about drivers’ criminal histories on request. Indeed, the research went on to reveal a significant number of licensed drivers with serious criminal convictions. The fact is that the “fit and proper person” test that is used for anyone applying to drive a taxi or private hire car is pretty ambiguous, and means that some local authorities are granting and renewing licenses that perhaps we would not want them to.

The Local Government Association in England is creating a voluntary register, as we heard from the hon. Member for Cambridge. That, of course, is an interesting idea, but if it is voluntary, inevitably its impact in bringing about the changes that many of us would like to see will be limited. We know that the advent of smartphone apps is already having a significant impact on the way taxis and private hire cars operate, which is challenging existing businesses and regulatory models all the time. We have heard a lot about that today.

We need all and any taxi or private hire companies to comply with the existing licensing requirements set out in legislation and to ensure that all vehicles and drivers are properly licensed. We heard much about that from Mr Duncan Smith. We also need to pay attention to unfair working practices and ensure that those working in the so-called gig economy have fair, protected and decent working conditions. If work must be flexible, it should still be fair; the two are not mutually exclusive. Workers should have appropriate rights and protections, including sick pay and holiday pay. It was disappointing that the Taylor review did not quite match up to many people’s hopes in tackling the real issues facing workers in insecure employment.

As I said earlier in answer to Jim Shannon, of course taxi licensing is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The licensing systems across the UK are similar, but there are important differences. One of the major differences, something that campaigners have flagged up and that has been made much of today, is cross-border hiring of private hire vehicles.

In Scotland, private hire vehicles are required to return to their licensing area to accept a booking after travelling outside that area. A private hire vehicle driver in, for example, Glasgow can accept a fare in Glasgow that takes them out of the city, but they cannot pick someone up outside the city. They must return to Glasgow to pick up another fare. I see no reason why the Minister cannot give serious consideration to the regulatory system in England.

There remains the problem of drivers illegally picking up off the streets without prior booking, which often overlaps with cross-border hiring. These so-called pirate cabbies have an impact on the livelihoods of other taxis and private hire cab drivers who follow the rules. They can also potentially put the public at risk, and I would wager that these pirate cabbies are causing problems across the entire United Kingdom—even in Scotland, where cross-border hiring is illegal.

Most particularly, I suggest it is likely to be a problem in big cities such as Glasgow, Belfast, London and Cambridge on the busiest nights of the week, especially Fridays and Saturdays. Clearly, more enforcement would help. The practice is a breach of cab licensing restrictions and invalidates car insurance. I know that in Scotland illegal taxi touting, where the illegal pick-up is often charged way over the odds for their journey, is an issue that Police Scotland are particularly interested in.

There is also the contentious issue of over-provision, about which we have heard much today. In Scotland, until fairly recently local councillors had no power to limit the number of private hires on the streets, but new legislation allows the licensing authority to refuse to grant an application for a private hire licence on the very grounds of over-provision of private hire cars in the area in which the driver plans to operate. Any assessment of over-provision must of course look at current provision, as well as the use of and demand for the service of both taxis and private hires, to ensure that demand can be fulfilled and there is fairness to all in the industry.

Local flexibility is important. It is also important that there should be a minimum number of wheelchair accessible vehicles, as the hon. Member for Cambridge pointed out. We have heard calls for CCTV licensing in cabs, but that is more controversial, because as well as cost considerations there are concerns about intrusion.

As the way we live our lives and access our leisure pursuits is increasingly reliant on technology, and as public transport can be challenging for some of our communities at certain times of the evening, taxi and private hire licensing also becomes more challenging. Our priority must be to keep the public safe, as well as to create a fair and reasonable environment for those who make their living providing this important service. Today we have heard some of those concerns and a little bit about some of the divergences and the different direction we have taken in Scotland. The concerns raised are important and require our attention; I am keen to hear what the Minister intends to do to answer them, whether he has had a look at how things operate in Scotland and whether any of those measures are perhaps things he would wish to adopt.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses) 3:38 pm, 13th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner on securing this important debate, and on the work he has been doing on the licensing of taxi and private hire vehicles. With his private Member’s Bill, he has shown more initiative than the Government to ensure that we legislate in this Parliament to require taxi and private hire vehicle licensing authorities in England to share information with other local authorities, to prevent unsuitable people from being granted licences. I should say that in our manifesto at the general election last year, the Labour party pledged that we would reform the legislation governing taxi and private hire services, introducing national standards to guarantee safety and accessibility.

I thank Mr Hayes, who instigated the task and finish group’s report, and I hope his colleagues on the Government Benches will now act on it. While we welcome the many recommendations in the report and the work of Professor Abdel-Haq, it is frustrating that the Government have so far failed to legislate during their eight years in power, despite the calls from Labour and other Opposition parties, trade unions and campaigners.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I intervene merely to put on the record the thanks that the whole country should give to Professor Abdel-Haq for leading this working party, to the working party itself, many of whom I see in the Public Gallery, and to the Minister who set it up. Even if the Government do not want to move generally, they can say that licensing authorities may act against companies such as Uber by insisting that people get the legal minimum rate for the hours that they are clocked on for work.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the role of Uber in this and the need for urgent action to tackle abuses.

While we welcome the recommendations of the report, eight years in power is a long time to leave this issue and not tackle it. It is now time to move on. The Government’s hands-off approach to taxis and private hire vehicles means that they have presided over a race to the bottom on quality, accessibility and, as we have heard, safety. Several serious incidents have demonstrated that taxi and private hire vehicle passengers are simply not adequately protected.

As technology and the industry have evolved, our regulation of the taxi and private hire industry has simply failed to keep pace. The industry is changing rapidly, yet the legal framework governing taxi services is almost 200 years old, while private hire services legislation dates from the mid-1970s in most of England and Wales and 1998 in London. The piecemeal evolution of the regulation of taxi and private hire services has resulted in a complex and fragmented licensing system, with services differing greatly depending on where in the country they are. There are no national standards, resulting in a very variable picture, primarily regarding quality, safety and accessibility.

One of the most significant challenges facing the taxi trade that Ministers have stalled over, but which the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge addresses, is cross-border working by private hire vehicles. There have been concerns about private hire vehicles operating outside their licensed geographical areas, as we have heard. That puts taxis at a competitive disadvantage, as unlike private hire vehicles they have to return to their licensed area after taking a fare outside their borough.

Some councils in the country hand out too many licences, clogging up the streets and worsening congestion and air quality, as my hon. Friend Wes Streeting mentioned. Illegal levels of air pollution are the UK’s most severe public health crisis and cause 40,000 premature deaths each year. Despite being repeatedly dragged through the courts, the Government have refused to act, including by failing to include taxi and private hire vehicle policy as part of a wider clean air strategy, which I believe is a serious omission. Greater investment in charging infrastructure and greater support for taxi and private hire vehicle companies that wish to switch to electric fleets are also required.

However, it may be better to reduce the total amount of traffic in areas with illegal air quality, so I note with interest the task and finish group’s recommendation that the Government should legislate to allow local authorities—where there is a proven need—to cap the number of taxis and private hire vehicles that they license. That proposal could help authorities to solve challenges around congestion, air quality and parking and ensure appropriate provision of taxi and private hire services for passengers, while at the same time maintaining drivers’ working conditions, which is important and which we have heard about today. I am interested in hearing the Minister’s response to this specific point.

The implications of cross-border licensing arrangements for safety are deeply worrying, as was said earlier. Local authorities are presently permitted to set their own “fit and proper” criteria for licensing. Dangerous private hire drivers are therefore able to operate even in an area with stringent safety criteria, as my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, who is no longer in her place, mentioned. That needs to be tackled. As a result, local authorities such as Rotherham and Oxford, which set strict criteria following instances of child sexual exploitation, are powerless to act.

Rather than addressing that problem, the Government’s Deregulation Act 2015 permitted the subcontracting of licensing, which has made the situation worse. Enforcement by local licensing authorities is now more difficult, and passengers are stripped of their right to choose which operator they wish to travel with. The Government should include in future national minimum standards the requirement for all taxi drivers to undertake safeguarding and child sexual abuse and exploitation awareness training, which should include the positive role that drivers can play in spotting and reporting signs of abuse and neglect in vulnerable passengers.

Further, in the interests of passenger safety, the report recommended that Government standards should mandate that all vehicles be fitted with CCTV, subject to strict data protection measures. In the light of threats to passenger safety, there is indeed a strong argument for this measure. The report also found that such standards would support greater consistency in licensing, potentially reducing costs and assisting in out-of-area compliance.

What steps will the Government take to combat the problems associated with cross-border working? One obvious measure to mitigate the problem is the introduction of national standards for licensing authorities. The Labour party has repeatedly called for such standards, and I hope that the Minister will now commit to introducing them. The Government have previously stated that many of these issues should be the responsibility of licensing authorities, but issues such as disability access and safety standards should not be at the discretion of local authorities and should not vary greatly across the country.

In May 2014, the Law Commission published a report recommending wholesale reform of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing. It found that:

“The balance struck between national and local rules lacks an overarching rationale, resulting in duplication, inconsistencies and considerable difficulties in cross-border enforcement…
The outdated legislative framework has become too extensive in some respects, imposing unnecessary burdens”.

The Government did not respond to the report beyond saying that they were “considering it.” Surely they should not simply ignore it. The industry has changed significantly throughout the years, and continues to do so, increasingly spurred on through technological change.

I am conscious of the time, so I will move to my closing remarks. The former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, planned at one point during his tenure in City Hall to introduce a minimum five-minute wait for customers requesting a car and beginning a journey. That was motivated by concerns about the impact of Uber’s business model on London, which we heard so much about earlier. Those plans were abandoned after intense lobbying, but I think it is worth reviewing them again. The advent of smartphone apps is changing the industry and presents many clear benefits to passengers, but companies such as Uber currently enjoy unfair competitive advantages because they do not have to follow the same regulation as other businesses.

Licensing authorities should use their existing enforcement powers to take strong action where disability access refusals are reported, to deter further cases. We welcome the recommendation that central Government and licensing authorities should level the playing field by mitigating additional costs that the trade faces where a wider social benefit is provided, such as when wheelchair accessibility or other measures are offered. We have seen real progress in London on these matters. I look forward to hearing what steps the Minister will take on the many questions I have asked him.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:47 pm, 13th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. If I may briefly state the Government’s position, very much in the spirit of Wes Streeting, I would say in the first instance “Mamma Mia”—we cannot allow this to be “One Last Summer”, nor can it be “Hasta Mañana”. It is not quite “SOS”, but we cannot allow the taxi trade to say “Take A Chance On Me”. Above all, as my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith said, it cannot be that “The Winner Takes It All.”

I congratulate Daniel Zeichner on securing the debate on the task and finish group’s report on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing. Unfortunately, as Members will have detected, the Minister responsible for taxi and private hire vehicle policy is unable to be here; she is overseas on a ministerial visit. However, I have noted—as will she when she reads the account of the debate—the very warm words that colleagues from across the House have for her work and for that of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, in whose steps in the Department it is a pleasure to tread.

I know that better regulation of this sector is something that hon. Members from across the House regard as important, and we in the Department very much share that view.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

I add my grateful appreciation and thanks for Professor Abdel-Haq’s brilliant, well informed and well intentioned report. May I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that if we embrace modern technology, it will not and need not be too expensive, onerous and complex to adopt most of its recommendations?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend tempts me to comment on the contents of announcements that will be forthcoming relatively soon. I do not think I should do that, for reasons that the House will understand, but his point is well made. Certainly many of us have been beneficiaries of increased technology in our lives as well as in our travel.

Ministers in the Department very much regret that the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Cambridge appears unlikely to be successful. We all know, and he has reminded us today, of his considerable efforts to increase safety and of the support that he received from officials in the Department to introduce that Bill, which the Government were pleased to be able to support.

I shall make some general remarks and then pick up the questions and specific matters that have been touched on. In recent years, the taxi and private hire industry has experienced rapid growth and significant change brought about by innovation and the application of new technologies, which my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti has just mentioned. Those changes contributed to the announcement of the formation of the task and finish group. Hon. Members will recall that that announcement was made at a Westminster Hall debate last July by the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings.

The goal of the group was to consider issues raised about taxi and private hire vehicle licensing and their potential remedies. The group first met in September of last year, with an intention to submit a report later that year. The work that it did revealed a degree of agreement—a high degree of agreement, in many ways—but also very strongly held and disparate views on solutions. It is important to put that on the record, but I am sure that it will come as no surprise to anyone who has engaged with taxi and private hire vehicle regulation over the years.

The report was delayed, but that enabled the already well informed group to consider the numerous submissions from organisations across the country and a wide range of stakeholders. They included those working in the trade, regulators, the police, disability organisations and trade unions, to name just a few. The longer timeframe gave the group the opportunity to question many of those organisations to learn more about their concerns and the specific matters relating to them.

As I trust colleagues will understand and as I have said already, I cannot advise them of the Government’s response at this stage, but I can reassure them that the work being done in the Department is near completion and that a Government response, setting out how we intend to reform the regulation of the sector, will be issued very shortly.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It really would not be appropriate for me, not least because I am not the Minister directly responsible for this area, to comment on the timing of the response, but “very shortly” are encouraging words when uttered by any Minister and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take comfort from that.

I, too, would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Ms Ghani, as well as, of course, on my own behalf, to thank the chair of the task and finish group, Professor Abdel-Haq, for his work. It has been much said across the Chamber that his work has been welcomed and is well regarded for its clarity and the ingenuity with which he brought the disparate voices together. The recommendations that he made in the report may not be unanimously supported in every case, but the professor has achieved a great deal of consensus and on that he should be congratulated.

The report sets out the professor’s view of what is needed, from both central and local government, to ensure the safety of passengers and the long-term success of the sector. There are 34 recommendations, some of which focus on short-term fixes. A number need to be achieved by licensing authorities using their extensive existing powers. In the medium term, the recommendations focus on greater consistency in licensing. They call on the Government to legislate to set national minimum standards, as discussed today, and to enable effective enforcement through greater powers for enforcement officers and better sharing of information between licensing authorities.

As I have said, the Government will respond to the report very shortly, but we are already seeking to increase the consistency in licensing. Ministers will very shortly launch a consultation on safety-related statutory guidance to be issued to licensing authorities. The draft guidance has been the subject of extensive discussion and engagement, including a review by the task and finish group. The guidance represents an important first step in ensuring that all passengers will be carried by someone who has undergone rigorous checks to ensure that they are “fit and proper”, as legislation requires. That should apply regardless of where they travel and by whom the driver and vehicle are licensed—both issues have been raised here today.

Some of the recommendations made in the statutory guidance and in the task and finish group report will impose additional burdens on the trade. Although we would prefer that those measures were unnecessary, Ministers recognise that it is vital to act on the lessons from the Casey and Jay reports. It is a well known remark and, I think, agreed by all that a single attack is too many. We must protect passengers from any driver seeking to abuse their position of trust.

The task and finish group’s remit extended beyond the vital area of safety. The way in which the sector is regulated and the welfare of those working within it have also been the subject of increasing concern and have been raised in this debate. Many of those concerns stem from the innovation and application of new technologies. The requesting of a vehicle, whether a taxi or a private hire vehicle, via an app is increasingly popular, but the fundamental difference between what private hire vehicles and taxis are permitted to do, in law at least, has not changed. There may be blurring, but the fundamental basis of it has not changed.

Taxis alone have the hard-earned right to ply for hire, and action must be taken against those who break the law in that regard. Taxis offer a premium service to passengers, providing confidence that drivers have knowledge of the local area and, in some areas, guarantees on the accessibility of vehicles—another matter raised today. Private hire vehicles provide a different range of services and, although there is a wide range of views as to the relative merits of some of the new entrants to the sector, we must not forget that many of these services are popular with the public. The Government support consumer choice and want to see both the taxi industry and the private hire vehicle industry prosper.

Local authority enforcement officers have a vital role in maintaining the differentiation and fair competition between the two sides: taxis and private hire vehicles. They also play an important role in ensuring that unlicensed, unvetted, uninsured and unsafe drivers and vehicles are prohibited from circumventing the regulations and stealing business from the legitimate trade.

The emergence of “disruptive” businesses, though the application of new technologies, has created new products and services with the potential to meet still better the demands of consumers. These developments have also provided greater flexibility in working arrangements and increased employment opportunities, but of course one recognises—this has been raised today—that they have drawbacks as well. The implications of gig working extend far beyond this sector. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor to conduct a review of modern working practices.

Let me pick up some of the other points raised. The report raises the issue of accessibility training, and the Government are considering that very closely. The same is true with regard to the need for national standards. As I have mentioned, the Government expect to consult soon on statutory guidance on safeguarding. As regards the question of a national database, the Government are considering all things that could be done to improve safety, and the response will include that question, too. I think that it would be unfair for me to continue to say, “The response will include,” and that I should allow the hon. Member for Cambridge the chance to wind up his own debate.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 3:58 pm, 13th November 2018

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving me the chance to wind up. I thank everyone who has contributed to a full debate. We have not been able to cover every single issue, and I want to raise a couple of things that were not touched on: the use of CCTV, and the anxieties, if we have larger licensing authorities, about potential clustering of vehicles in city centres.

I would like to finish by echoing the wise words of Mr Hayes. He said that he was not in favour of disruption. I think that I am more disruptive than he is, but one thing that we would not want to disrupt is things that are precious, and the most precious thing is safety. That is the theme that has come through the debate this afternoon, which is why I was pleased to hear the Minister promising action very shortly. We will keep him to that promise, because it is very important that we heed the messages coming through from this excellent report—we again thank the professor and his group for producing it—that safety is paramount and we need swift action.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Task and finish group report on taxi and private hire licensing.