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[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 13th November 2018.

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

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.