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Taxicabs, London

Volume 641: debated on Sunday 7 May 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn:—[ Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

5.53 a.m.

I wish to start by apologising to the staff of the House and everyone associated with the House of Commons, when it is performing its normal functions, for keeping them for another half-an-hour.

The subject which I wish to raise is of paramount importance to many thousands of men who earn their living as taxi-drivers in London. We expect that the Minister when he replies to the debate will make a statement which will relieve them of their anxieties. I think that there may well be a serious position on the streets of London unless the right hon. Gentleman is clear about what he has to say.

I will explain the story for the benefit of those who have taken the trouble to stay and listen. I speak for over 10,000 taxi-drivers in London and I am also putting forward the views of many owner-drivers. I speak, also, on behalf of proprietors of taxicabs. It is unusual for me to speak on behalf of employers, but I am doing so on this occasion. There is a united view on this matter, not only among the owners and drivers but also among many hundreds of thousands of workshop staff and clerical workers and people employed in ancillary industries associated with taxicabs.

For a man to be a taxicab driver is not very easy. He has to pass the most stringent tests, imposed by Scotland Yard, as to his fitness to drive and his knowledge of London districts. Also, he has to produce for the benefit of Scotland Yard a taxicab which has passed the most severe test. Once he has done those things he is allowed to take his cab on the roads and to ply for hire. Every year that cab has to go back to Scotland Yard to be inspected to be sure that it conforms with the regulations. It should go out from this House that the taxi-driver is governed by very severe regulations laid down by this House. It ill becomes anyone, particularly a Member of Parliament, to question the regulations unless he himself is prepared to amend those regulations. Power to amend the regulations, of course, rests with the Government Front Bench.

Last November, the Minister of State, Home Office, whom I am very pleased to see here to reply to this debate, replied to a question asked by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir). In that debate the Minister said—and I think that it was an "off the cuff" statement—that he thought that it would be a good thing if, on the streets of London, we had smaller taxicabs. He may be right about that, but we understand that the regulations would have to be altered. Since he made that "off the cuff" remark, a number of things have happened. The London taxicab driver has been threatened with a wholesale invasion by smaller cabs coming on the roads. They are referred to generally as minicabs. One firm, Welbeck Motors, has made clear that on 19th June, next Monday week, it proposes to put on the London streets about 400 minicabs which, frankly and openly, will try to take away the normal trade expected to be done by the London taxicab driver.

I make clear that neither I nor those whom I represent here have any abjection to Welbeck Motors or anyone doing a normal car hire business in London. That is a legitimate and a big business. If Welbeck Motors wish to do that no one would have any objection, but there is all the difference in the world between a car hire service and a taxicab business. A taxicab is driven round the streets and is for hire. It can be hailed by the ordinary Londoner or the tourist. In the case of the hire car one has to telephone to the base where the cars are stationed and a car is sent from the base to the customer. After the journey, it returns to the base. Welbeck Motors has indicated in advertisements—no one knows more about this than the Minister of State—that on 19th June it is sending on to the streets of London 400 mini-cabs. It has been said in the advertisements that the cabs will be radio-controlled and they have said, in my view quite flagrantly, that it is intended to get round the regulations.

The Arm has suggested a number of devices. If, when a minicab is going along the road, a potential customer stops it, the driver will radio to the base and ask whether it is in order to take that customer. If this sort of thing goes on, and these minicabs come on to the roads in the numbers I have suggested, and ply for hire in this way—as they will be doing as against the normal taxicab—we shall face a great problem. There is a great deal of money behind the Welbeck Motors effort. I read yesterday that Mr. Isaac Wolfson has put a fortune into this project.

The statements by the Minister of State have led the firm to believe that it can do this sort of thing and get away with it. Indeed, in a debate on television, some time ago, between a representative of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the owner of Welbeck Motors, the owner made it clear that the Minister of State had not conveyed the impression that what the firm intended to do would be wrong. The firm was encouraged by the ambiguity of some of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks.

That is why I raise the matter tonight. I want to give the right hon. Gentleman a chance, before Welbeck Motors comes on to the streets, of making it perfectly clear that, if the firm comes on and attempts to ply for hire in the way it threatens, it will mock the regulations, the Home Office will take severe action, and the Government will ensure that the laws laid down by Parliament are not flouted or circumvented.

The situation is dangerous. I have had the privilege of attending two mass meetings of taxi-drivers. I am usually associated with dock workers, who can get very angry, but I can honestly say that in my long experience I have never seen men so angry as the London taxi-drivers are today. The London taxi-driver has to pass the stringent tests to which I have referred. He now faces the threat of his livelihood being destroyed, perhaps, by people coming on to the streets who do not have to pass the fitness test, nor comply with the vehicle test, nor any regulations. Their living is threatened. We should all feel mad. I can only pay tribute to the union concerned, which has handled this matter with tremendous responsibility and done all it can to try to restrain the taxi-drivers from taking very severe action.

At the last meeting which I attended, which was at St. Pancras Town Hall, I could sense that the attitude of the London taxi-driver was this. If Welbeck Motors comes on to the roads and attempts to interfere with taxi-drivers, as it has indicated through advertisements, I believe that there will be very serious scenes on London streets. I do not want that to happen. The union does not want it to happen. It can be averted if the Minister of State will make a serious statement from the Dispatch Box and give a warning to Welbeck Motors.

I again thank the right hon. Gentleman for coming here tonight. I hope that this time he will remedy the mistake he made last November. If he wants the smaller cab on the London streets, and if there are hon. Members who want that—it may well be a very good thing—let us do it in the proper way. Let the Home Office discuss the matter with the taxi-cab trade. Let us talk about amending the regulations. It should be done in the proper way. The Government should not allow a firm of this kind and size openly and frankly to threaten taxi-drivers with what it intends to do, which must be, as I know he will agree, an affront of the existing regulations.

I want the right hon. Gentleman to clear the position up tonight. Many people wait to hear his words. I am sure that he will choose them carefully. The London taxi-driver, like many other people, is providing a social service to Britain. He is often bitterly criticised. The hon. Member for Hexham, in the Adjournment debate last November, was very upset because he complained that he had to wait over ten minutes for a taxi. I felt very sorry for him, but I did not think that that was much of a complaint.

It should be clearly said that the taxi-cab trade is not a closed shop. Any-one can be a taxi-driver, provided that he passes the tests I have referred to, that he is fit, and that he can afford a taxi-cab which today costs about £1,200. If he can do all these things, he can become a London taxi-driver. We must not allow this infiltration, this attempt being made by an outside firm, to destroy the livelihood of these men. I hope that we shall hear from the right hon. Gentleman words which will give us the assurances which these men have the right to expect.

6.4 a.m.

As the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said, last November I replied to an Adjournment debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) argued, amongst other things, that the present conditions of fitness for London taxicabs are too exacting and that a lighter vehicle might well be put into service.

In my reply I said that the Deputy Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, to whom the statutory licensing powers have been entrusted, would be willing to consider on their merits any proposals for a lighter vehicle which might be put forward by the manufacturers or the trade.

These remarks were not made "off the cuff," but rather after careful consideration and I repeat them now. Nothing that I shall say on this occasion will be "off the cuff," because I fully realise that my words will be scrutinised carefully by all those who are interested in this matter.

What I then had in mind was the possibility of establishing a service of small taxicabs within the present publicly controlled cab system. It was not my intention to suggest the operation of unlicensed vehicles in competition with the established cab trade. Since I made those remarks, some proposals for specially constructed types of taxicab of lighter design have been received by the Deputy Commissioner, and those are now being considered.

I should like to make it clear that there has been no change in the Deputy Commissioner's attitude about a possible relaxation of the present conditions, and I hope that the hon. Member will welcome this. Indeed, I am able to announce a further step to be taken which will give it practical expression. The Deputy Commissioner has decided to set up a small committee of engineers, independent both of the licensing authority and of the cab trade, to examine the present conditions of fitness, and to advise him whether, consistently with the need to safeguard the public, they could be modified.

This committee will also have the duty of advising the Deputy Commissioner, on request, about specific technical points which may arise in the course of his consideration of any specific proposals for a new design of taxicab. It may well be that economic and technical considerations may prevail against the introduction of a new vehicle, but at least the trade should welcome a move which should facilitate progress consistent with the essential standards of fitness and safety.

So far, I have talked only about licensed taxicabs which ply for hire and must now turn to the topic which principally concerns the hon. Member, namely, the operation of small private hire vehicles, commonly known as minicabs. I can say at once that the Government does not propose to allow the privilege of plying for hire, which is confined by legislation to licensed taxi-cabs, to be enjoyed by vehicles which are not subject to proper controls administered by a public authority or driven by people who are not subject to public control.

The Home Secretary has, in fact, already made clear, in Answer to a Question on 15th March, that according to advice he has received, a procedure under which a vehicle could be hailed in the street and thereupon engaged for an immediate journey by means of a booking placed over a radio-telephone installed in the vehicle, amounts to plying for hire; and if that vehicle is not licensed as a taxicab an offence would be committed.

I am advised by the Commissioner that, so far as the Metropolis is concerned, if evidence is forthcoming that this procedure is being operated by unlicensed vehicles prosecutions will be brought. It is recognised that "plying for hire" is nowhere defined by legislation, but there is ample judicial authority which shows what kind of activity is within the meaning of this expression. No evidence has yet come to the police to suggest that the radio controlled minicabs now in service have, with one possible exception which is being investigated, so far attempted to ply for hire.

They have operated, so far as I am aware, quite properly, an extended hire car service under which a car is provided in response to a booking made with their headquarters over the telephone. They have claimed that it is their intention to make available a private hire service at charges which are within the reach of a much wider circle of people than have hitherto been able to use private hire cars.

Nevertheless, it has been represented that the expected large increase in the numbers of these vehicles on the streets of London following the entry into this field of a major proprietor later this month will result in an undesirable state of affairs. It is argued that the licensed taxi service will inevitably suffer from such competition; that the presence of these additional vehicles on the streets will gravely accentuate traffic problems; and that their presence on parking sites in the central area while awaiting further instructions from their headquarters will result in a substantial withdrawal from the private motorist of the parking facilities at present available.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, whom I have consulted about this matter, does not consider that these vehicles in the numbers now contemplated will add appreciably to the problem of traffic congestion, or diminish greatly the available parking space in the central zone. Subject to two qualifications, the Government's view is that there is room in our public transport system for a variety of services, and that the taxi service and the private hire operators both have parts to play.

The taxi service caters mainly for the man in a hurry who wants a vehicle on the spot without having to make a prior booking—inevitably a time-consuming procedure. The private hire car, on the other hand, is suitable for the premeditated journey. To the extent that the entry into this field of additional firms operating smaller vehicles at a relatively low tariff will enable these facilities to be enjoyed by a wider section of the community, the development is in keeping with post-war trends in our society and fully accords with the policies of the present Administration.

My first qualification concerns the possible impact of the minicabs on the public transport system. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport must be concerned to see the ordered development of the network of public transport services as a whole. He will watch the minicab experiment from this point of view, although these is no reason to suppose that the minicabs on the scale at present contemplated can have more than a marginal effect.

My second qualification concerns the possible impact of the minicabs on the taxi service. The Government acknowledge that the taxi service bears a burden in the standards which are required in the construction of vehicles in the interests of the safety and convenience of passengers and the standards of knowledge which are required of drivers, and that, in return, they are entitled to some protection. This protection is provided by the ban which the law imposes on unlicensed vehicles plying for hire.

If the minicabs confine themselves to legitimate private hire, they will not fall foul of this ban. But if there is evidence that minicabs operate in ways which amount—notwithstanding the adoption of dubious and probably ineffective methods for evading the law—to the public picking up of passengers, then the Government will not stand aside. Breaches of the law which can be supported by evidence will, as far as the Metropolis is concerned, be the subject of prosecutions.

If I should be asked what the Government would do if these prosecutions were unsuccessful and it should thus be disclosed that the present law regarding plying for hire can be evaded, my answer must be that this is rather too far to look ahead at present. Before any question of fresh legislation can be considered the existing law must first be put to the test, and it is my present belief that it will be found effective.

Would my right hon. Friend make any comment about the reports which one has seen of minicabs not plying for hire but offering free lifts in order to advertise their existence and, in fact, placing themselves in certain parts of the Metropolis with the concept of spreading the idea of the minicabs and perhaps taking away, by means of free lifts, the trade from the taxicab? Has my right hon. Friend considered that point? If so, would he consider that that was a normal type of business that we would want to be encouraged?

I have already said that I do not want to give an "off the cuff" decision tonight. All that I can say is that the Commissioner of Police is watching the situation and will prosecute if he has evidence that the law is being breached.

As I understand what the right hon. Gentleman said, if Welbeck Motors, or any other firm owning minicabs, should attempt to go beyond the normal car hire business, they will be subject to prosecution by the police, and for that statement I am very much obliged.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Six o'clock a.m.