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[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 13th November 2018.

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

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 The draft guidance has been the subject of extensive discussion and engagement, including a review by the task and finish group.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.