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Taxi Drivers (Assault)

Volume 494: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Wright.)

The debate provides me with an opportunity—[Interruption.] After you have been congratulated again by the Members who are at the Chair, Mr. Speaker, the debate provides me with the opportunity to wish you well. I understand the congratulations, and I wish you well in your very difficult task and recognise the courage that you have displayed in taking it on. My job tonight, however, is to talk about assaults on taxi drivers and the need to protect them further than we might have done so far.

I set the scene by pointing out that violence against taxi drivers has increased sizeably over the past decade. To be fair to the Government, they have recognised that on a number of occasions. I might add, however, that the increase is linked—there is now some evidence of the linkage—with the rise in late-night drinking in our major town centres, given the unsociable hours that taxi drivers work and the fact that people come out of clubs at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and then spend perhaps another half an hour in the kebab house before seeking a taxi. Those two factors are important in the increase in violence.

I do not need to tell the Minister about the vital importance of taxis to the transport industry. However, that importance is not well understood by many in local government. For instance, five or six years ago, Northamptonshire county council undertook a multi-modal study costing some £750,000. It might surprise the Minister to know that taxis were not included in that study, yet we are talking about an industry that employs 340,000 people. The latest figures to hand show that there are 71,500 Hackney cab drivers and more than 250,000 private-hire drivers. The industry makes about 700 million taxi journeys a year, which means an average of roughly 11 journeys for each member of the population. About £3 billion is spent on fares each year. We are therefore talking about a sizeable industry that plays a major role in our public transportation. It is important to recognise that.

I do not need to tell the Minister that taxi drivers are often alone with their customers in their cabs, and are therefore highly vulnerable. We need to bear that in mind quite seriously. Taxi drivers work on the front line of transportation and in the late hours, not least because no other transportation is available then. Their customers are unknown to them and they often pick them up in the very dimmest of light. Whereas the Minister and I might be able to spot an undesirable customer in the light of day, it is difficult for taxi drivers to do that.

Taxi drivers also take home groups of more than one person. Late at night, their customers are often the worse for drink. Those are difficult circumstances for any service provider to deal with customers in. Taxi drivers carry out a vital function in some of the most difficult circumstances that we might imagine, and they pay a price. Taxi drivers are under attack. The figures are not only clear; they are quite horrifying. There were 51 murders in the private-hire and Hackney cab industry over a 15-year period, which means an average of a little over three a year. That is a frightening figure in an industry that is about providing a service during antisocial hours to a customer base that often has no alternative. In truth, that might be a comment on our society, although it is not my purpose to talk about that this evening.

Let me give some examples of taxi drivers who were murdered. In May 2006, 37-year-old Mahmood Ahmed, a family man, was found stabbed to death in a country lane in Keighley. The post-mortem revealed that he had been hit hard on the head with a blunt instrument from behind—that is an important fact. In May 2007, in Gravesham, Kent, a 70-year-old grandfather, Gian Chand Bajar, was attacked and had the proceeds of that evening’s work stolen. The attackers then took his taxi by force, ran over him and left him to die in the street. He died in hospital, and his car was found abandoned, having been set on fire, a mile from the site of the attack. In 2005, Mr. Colin Winstone, aged 44 and from Bristol, was found dead after being stabbed outside the Old Fox Inn at Easton, Bristol. Those three cases illuminate the fact that these are family people doing an important job, who meet a violent end that horrifies us all.

In addition to murders, there are thousands of attacks. Only last month in the Halifax area, a taxi driver named Amjad Farooq, aged 35, was violently attacked. He sustained serious head injuries, was beaten unconscious, had his car stolen and was hospitalised for a considerable time. In June 2009—only this month—another driver, whose name I was unable to get, was robbed at knifepoint by three men in Burnage, Manchester. In November 2008, another taxi driver recovered at home after being struck over the head with what was believed to have been a handgun. He was attacked by two men in Normanton, Derby, who then drove off in his taxi.

Those are just three examples—six altogether, including the murders that I have mentioned—of the thousands of incidents that are inflicted on taxi drivers every year. I would like to make the point that race is a major factor in this issue. Although only one third of the trade’s drivers are from our ethnic minority communities, two thirds of the attacks are on people from those communities. I know that the Minister does not need me to underline that point to him, as he is aware of it and understands the horror of that aspect of these crimes.

Sadly, taxi drivers lack faith in the justice system, and many attacks are not reported. A survey carried out in Portsmouth in 2008 showed that, of the 396 drivers who responded, 60 per cent. had been a victim of crime in the past 12 months. It also showed that 70 per cent. admitted not reporting incidents to the police, and that the most common reason for that was that they did not think the police would be interested. We need to take that on board. Rightly or wrongly, that is the general impression that people have, and we have to deal with that. We cannot afford to have a sizeable part of our community believing that the police are not interested. Action needs to be taken in that regard.

As I have said, taxi drivers do not have faith in the justice system. Equally, the evidence suggests that, in certain parts of the country, the relationship between police and taxi drivers is simply not good enough. That is a pretty disturbing indictment, yet that is what the evidence shows. I fear that we are not in a position to refute it, but we are in a position to try to do something about it.

The cost to the nation of dealing with attacks on taxi drivers is remarkably high. The estimated cost of investigating the 51 murders over 15 years was £77.7 million. The cost of each investigation of violence against a person in relation to taxi drivers was £3,036 for each attack. That is quite a lot of money but, bearing in mind the crime, it is a price that we have to pay. It is, however, a price that we would wish not to pay. I know that the Minister feels the same. If we add social security and loss of earnings, the total cost to the country over those 15 years is sizeable. I have been given a figure, but I think that it is a mistake, so I shall not read it out, because I do not want it to go on the record. A sizeable amount is involved, nevertheless, and we need to take that into account.

There is action that we can take to help taxi drivers. There is a need for automatic protection between taxi drivers and their customers. That means screens in hire cars. Screens could be purchased to stop attacks from the rear, which is where many attacks emanate from in non-Hackney cab taxis. There would be a double benefit because, sadly, there are reports of unwanted sexual approaches made to young ladies late in the night and screens would stop that happening. There are good social reasons to encourage a simple answer for authorities that give licences to taxi cabs, and it would be easy to introduce a requirement to ensure that screens were fitted in non-Hackney taxi cabs—if we were willing to do so.

In March, Mr. Bryan Roland, general secretary of the Private Hire Association, fully endorsed in an open letter Safe Shield or shield-type products in cabs for those very reasons. However, and surprisingly, some councils will not permit the use of screens. That is quite remarkable. The Minister looks quizzical, but that is the information I have. I will write to him about it, although I am glad that he was as surprised as I was when I learned of it.

Screens are an aid to cutting violence against taxi drivers, as is CCTV. In Sheffield, a local taxi company had problems with assaults on its drivers. Over Christmas 2006, it suffered 400 incidents of violence. It was so worried that it paid for in-car cameras—an expensive exercise. The result? In 2007, only six incidents occurred. What a tremendous deterrent and a 98.5 per cent. reduction on the previous year thanks to CCTV. In Blackburn, Lancashire, there were 140 crimes—one for every five such vehicles on the road. Fourteen cars were fitted with CCTV equipment as part of a pilot scheme, with council help. That increased security for drivers and passengers.

There are ways to deal with these problems, therefore, and the London Taxi Network is another. The Minister will know that 4,500 London taxi drivers signed up to Dial-a-Cab and Radio Taxis Group, which provided enhanced security. I could go on. He will also know about the Taxi Marshals scheme. It is another way in which local authorities in particular can help in this respect.

I bring your attention, Mr. Speaker, to an Adjournment debate that I held on this very subject on 1 May 2008. On the point about CCTV, I said:

“There are problems, however. The units cost between £700 and £1,000 a car, and we know that most taxi drivers are self-employed and do not have that sort of capital. I am told that the cost of production is only £80 and that the rest is maintenance and back-up.”—[Official Report, 1 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 547.]

I asked whether the Government would look into that. I did not receive an answer at the time, so I hope the Minister can come back with information that would be encouraging to taxi drivers vis-à-vis the cost and perhaps with ways that we can help to encourage the purchase of CCTV cameras.

A year ago, I asked the Minister who responded to the debate about local authorities encouraging the use of screens. It might almost be in the Government’s thinking to say that screens ought to be fitted as a basic requirement in non-Hackney cab taxis. Will this Minister be kind enough to come back to me on that issue?

I ask the Minister to consider ways to improve relationships between taxi drivers and the police, if only to get rid of the perception among taxi drivers that the police do not care. Perhaps the police could do a little more to protect both the safety of taxicab customers and, equally important, that of their drivers.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I feel that the Government have a responsibility. The drinking laws changed, and the House quite properly accepted that, but that change has had results with which most other people must be unhappy. We must address the side-effects of the increasing late-night drinking in our towns and cities, which has led to more attacks on taxis.

I believe that taxi drivers seek real and meaningful answers and, perhaps, action from the Government. I hope that the Government will be able to give us some reassurance, and give the taxi drivers who serve our community in such an important way a little confidence that we may do a bit more to minimise a problem that is clearly of great import to their industry.

I join the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) in welcoming you to your new position, Mr. Speaker. We both look forward to catching your eye on many occasions in the future.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for initiating the annual event at which he rightly holds the Government to account on the serious issue of what we are doing about the safety of taxi drivers. I think it important for him to do so. I read the Hansard report of last year’s debate on the subject, and I have news of some of the progress that we have made over the past 12 months. In preparation for the debate, I not only did the usual things such as speaking to officials but read a couple of editions of Private Hire and Taxi Monthly, which includes a section in which victims of the assaults referred to by the hon. Gentleman describe what happened to them.

The debate is of interest not only to people who work as taxi and private hire vehicle drivers, but to all who are concerned with the safety of people who work in the transport sector. It is truly appalling that drivers who are, after all, providing a service for the public should be fearful about the prospect of getting through the working day unscathed, or, worse still, should have to endure abuse or violence. That is why we are keen to do what we can to help. I hope that once the hon. Gentleman has heard what I have to say about the progress made last year he will, with renewed vigour, ensure that this is an annual event, so that he can take us to task and make us go even further.

We have now published the findings of our national research on the personal security of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers. Reading the Hansard report of last year’s debate, I noted the frustration that the hon. Gentleman experienced in trying simply to obtain an executive summary of the research. It was particularly depressing to note from that research that Asian and other ethnic-minority drivers appear to have been subject to higher levels of abuse, much of which is racist in content. It was equally depressing to note that very few such incidents are reported to the police. I shall say more about that later, but let me now pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the fact that a disproportionate number of victims are from ethnic minorities. There is no reason at all why they should suffer more than anyone else. No one should suffer as a result of crime, irrespective of ethnicity or faith.

Although the report has assisted our understanding of the issues, we have also undertaken a constructive initiative to help taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to enhance their own personal security. We have prepared and published guidance for drivers, in a convenient leaflet form, on measures that they can take in order to stay safe. In recognition of the differences between the trades, we published two separate leaflets, one for taxi drivers and one for private hire vehicle drivers. We distributed many thousands of copies through local licensing authorities to ensure that every taxi and PHV driver in the country could have one.

The principle underlying the leaflets is that those who serve the travelling public are entitled to do their work in safety and without abuse. The leaflets include practical advice on how to reduce the risk of violence, and also identify action that should be taken to deal with threatening behaviour and attacks. They were drawn up with the help of the taxi and private hire vehicle trades. That is an example of our consulting rather than imposing our own ideas and solutions. We have also published guidance for crime and disorder reduction partnerships on ways in which they can work with the transport industry—including the taxi and private hire vehicle trades—to help to reduce crime and the fear of crime. That includes attempting to reduce the number of assaults on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers.

The best practice guidance that the Department produces on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing is a useful tool in assisting local licensing authorities in drawing up suitable licensing policies. The hon. Gentleman referred to some initiatives, including the installation in cabs of measures to improve drivers’ personal security, such as CCTV or having a screen between the driver and the passenger. The guidance urged local authorities to look into that, which is why I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman mentioned an example of a council discouraging it, and I want to investigate that and write to him about it.

We are now consulting on a revised version of the guidance. We propose that it should encourage local licensing authorities to draw up signs or notices that drivers could display in their cabs setting out what passengers can expect from drivers and what drivers should be able to expect from passengers. That is a new initiative, which we hope will appeal to local licensing authorities—and to such an extent that they will want to produce their own notices in consultation with the local trade.

We know that fare disputes are a major cause of potential confrontation between passengers and drivers—a reading of the trade journals highlights that. We would hope that the advice in the leaflets, together with any local notices that licensing authorities decide to produce, will lead to a reduction in the number of such disputes. On the subject of fares, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that we are in discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers on ways to raise awareness of the legal position on “bilking”—the commonly used term for passengers making off without paying their fare. As a number of the hon. Gentleman’s friends are taxi drivers, he will know that that is a big issue in the industry, and a source of huge tension. We hope ACPO will be able to help in this area.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have taken a number of actions to reduce the number of assaults on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers. However, we are not complacent, which is why it is important that he continues to hold us to account. We know that far too many drivers are still putting up with verbal, and, indeed, physical, abuse far too often—let alone the murders to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

I believe that the key to reducing the number of assaults is effective partnership-working at local level. The taxi and private hire vehicle trades need to work with the local police, licensing authorities and community safety partnerships to highlight their concerns and to seek suitable solutions. That may lead to the funding of in-car CCTV cameras, for example, or shields between the driver and the passenger compartment, or to the deployment of taxi marshals at taxi rank hot spots. I know that Northampton has taxi marshals, so the hon. Gentleman will be aware of that.

I know that there are a number of such initiatives around the country, and I urge the trade to learn the lessons from the good practice that already exists, and also to be aware of the potential sources of funding for security measures. That could be local authority funding, community safety partnership funding or even—the hon. Gentleman will enjoy this—EU funding. We must not cut off any funding routes.

It should be borne in mind that the sort of measures that would enhance drivers’ personal security might also have a beneficial effect on passenger safety. For example, a lone female at a city centre taxi rank in the early hours of the morning might appreciate the role of a taxi marshal in maintaining order at the rank, and the use of CCTV and security shields in saloon car taxis and private hire vehicles might provide passengers with an added degree of reassurance—a point made by the hon. Gentleman in his excellent speech.

I reiterate what I said in last year’s Adjournment debate about violence against taxi and private hire vehicle drivers: those in that trade should report all incidents to the police and the appropriate local community safety forums. The report that I mentioned earlier made it clear that many incidents go unreported to the police, and that is a tremendous shame. I recognise that reporting incidents means time away from work, and some may fear reprisals, but non-reporting also means that the police can be unaware of the type and scale of the problems that drivers face. I accept that the police need to redouble their efforts to win the trust and confidence of taxi drivers, as they have done in other areas of our society, so that more crime is reported.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that progress has been made since last year, but that there is no magic silver bullet or panacea that will solve these problems. It is a terrible shame that we live in a society in which people still think that they can abuse taxi drivers verbally or physically and get away without sanction from the criminal justice system. We look forward to working further with the trade, the police, local licensing authorities, the Home Office and the hon. Gentleman to ensure that we can find solutions to some of the challenges that he poses. I again congratulate him and thank him for raising these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.