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.