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[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Part of the debate – 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 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.