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.