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Private Hire and Hackney Carriage Vehicles

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 29 February 2012

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

I was prompted to call this debate to discuss the safety of private hire and taxi drivers and their passengers as a result of recent events in my constituency—the death of a constituent who was a private hire driver and an assault on another driver. More broadly, I want to encourage the Minister to make it his priority to transform the perception, and too often the reality, that private hire and taxi drivers are given second-class status in our public transport system when it comes to their safety. I also wish to highlight to the Minister some of the impediments to the safety of passengers that have been highlighted to me by Am I Safe?, a developer of applications to help passengers to verify at the point of hire that a vehicle is legitimately licensed. Those impediments arise from the complex regulatory structures, differing rules, and inconsistent interpretation of access to information rights that arise from the various licensing authorities.

Private hire and taxi drivers are a vital part of our public transport system, and when it comes to their physical safety and the safety of their property, they deserve to be afforded the same protection as our bus drivers, airline staff and railway employees, but they are not. In many towns such as Bedford, if a person has been out for the evening with their friends, private hire vehicles and taxis are often the only answer to the question, “Who will take me home tonight?”, yet drivers routinely have to deal with people who can be abusive, and may be under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both. A journey may end with someone vomiting in the vehicle or running off without paying. Private hire and taxi drivers run those risks—not routinely, of course, but much more frequently than many of the public would appreciate.

Let me turn to recent incidents in Bedford. As Adam Thompson of the Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper reported,

“Fayaz Alhaq…who runs AGS Cars in St Peter’s Street, Bedford, says his employees are ‘running a gauntlet’ every weekend and have a job ‘as dangerous as the police’. His words come after 61-year-old grandfather Mehar Dhariwal of…Kempston…died…having been assaulted the week before while working.”

Mr Thompson’s report went on:

“Only last month Bedfordshire on Sunday reported how 24/7 private hire driver Turbez Ahmed…was attacked…by a gang of eight who wouldn’t pay their fare up front.”

Efforts by Bedfordshire police to bring to justice the assailants in those two horrific and sad cases go on. I do not want to obscure those efforts by talking further about those instances, but although they are specific cases, sadly they are not isolated examples.

A freedom of information request to Bedfordshire police showed that there had been 93 assaults in the preceding 12 months on private hire and taxi drivers, including 35 cases of aggravated bodily harm and 30 common assaults. My local authority estimates that that amounts to 2% of drivers being assaulted each year. Very few jobs have such a high rate of unprovoked violence.

I have spoken with the National Private Hire Association, the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, and Private Hire News, and I am indebted to them for their engagement and assistance with my preparation for the debate. They all, without exception, talked openly and depressingly about the widespread nature of violence towards drivers, and said, even more worryingly, that the level of violence continues to increase.

The National Private Hire Association sent me news reports of attacks on drivers with knives; guns, fake and real; baseball bats; a hammer; a fire extinguisher; and even a wheelie bin. Drivers have been set on fire and run over by their own vehicles. I have not found any nationally collated statistics on assaults and murders of private hire and hackney carriage drivers. Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether those statistics are collated. If not, that in itself indicates that the issue of safety is not receiving the attention that it should. The GMB union kept a record of attacks between April 2007 and February 2008; it listed that nine drivers were killed and 45 suffered serious physical assaults while doing their job. The Department for Transport conducted research on personal security issues in 2008 and found that, on average, three drivers a year are unlawfully killed—evidence from across the country that our private hire and taxi drivers are at risk. I would argue that we have not made sufficient progress in mitigating those risks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) raised the issue in a debate on 24 June 2009. That debate was interesting because of a number of points that he raised, but also because he noted the extent of the private hire and taxi sector. He said that

“we are talking about an industry that employs 340,000 people…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.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 912.]

The Minister responding that day, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), was alert to the issue of driver safety and made some useful suggestions, but underlying that debate and much of the industry commentary is a sort of shrug-of-the-shoulders view that the issue is just too tough to tackle, and in some sense that it is the cost of doing business. What strikes me is not the fair and sometimes compelling explanations of the complexities of implementing changes that will tackle these widespread instances of assault, but that given these horrific attacks at such high incidence rates for so many years in a single sector of the economy, we have allowed the complexities to thwart our action for so long.

In the search for remedies, I turn first to the perception of the industry. Department for Transport research in 2008 found that

“a strong belief held by many drivers, controllers and others representing the trade is that the root cause of many of the problems is a lack of respect from the public for taxi and private hire drivers.”

That lack of respect can make the transition to abuse or to violence a much easier step to take. It is a sad fact also that this lack of respect too often descends into racial abuse.

I understand that a similar issue confronted the door security sector—I am not sure whether we can call them bouncers these days. The violence against bouncers was seen as part of that job, but a focused effort on changing that perception, together with other initiatives, has had a positive impact, reducing the incidence of attacks on door security staff at our pubs and clubs. What, in practical terms, has the Department for Transport done since 2008 to tackle the public perception of the industry, and what steps would the Minister consider undertaking? Perhaps it would be appropriate for the Transport Committee to assist in this effort.

Also in 2008 under the previous Government, the Sentencing Guidelines Council included taxi and private hire drivers in that category of workers where longer sentences would result from a crime. What assessment has the Department made of the impact of those changes in sentencing guidelines? Does the Minister believe that further action to strengthen the guidelines is warranted?

The national associations and the GMB raised with me the issue of the introduction of CCTV and/or driver shields. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those, as I understand that there are differing opinions about the desirability of each of those options, but he will be aware of the initiatives by some local authorities to investigate or roll out CCTV solutions. They have been considered for Brighton, Braintree, Oxford, Manchester and other locations. He will be equally aware of the very high cost of some of these solutions. It is unfair to expect drivers to bear the full cost of the equipment, particularly if the market price continues to be hundreds of pounds.

There has recently been a change to legislation in Northern Ireland to increase safety for taxi drivers and passengers and to regulate the sector. That resulted from attacks on both parties. Does the hon. Gentleman think that where there is good practice somewhere in the United Kingdom—in this case, in Northern Ireland—that could be used as an example to produce better regulation for taxi drivers on the mainland?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which highlights the fact that so many authorities are responsible for licensing, and the complexity of various initiatives taking place. I understand that the Law Commission will examine certain aspects of regulation, but he makes an excellent point about the need for best practice to be applied across the country. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response and his thoughts on the balance between localism and trying to tackle a national concern.

My view is that it would be unfair to expect drivers to bear the cost of CCTV, particularly if the price of the equipment remains in the hundreds of pounds. I do not expect public money to be made available in these straitened times, but I do know that in 2006 Bedford borough council worked with Bedfordshire police to use some of the proceeds of crime moneys to implement CCTV in a pilot scheme at low or no cost to drivers. In Leicester, funds from the tackling knives action programme have been used. In other local authorities, advertising on cabs has been enabled to fund the cost of CCTV. I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of the more widespread use of proceeds of crime moneys for this purpose.

I mentioned the lack of statistics on crime. I always think that if we do not track something, we will find it hard to make improvements. Therefore, will the Minister work with the Home Office to track more formally the statistics on criminal attacks on private hire drivers, including aggravated racial abuse? Will he also comment on whether he will seek opinions from the private hire and taxi trade as input to the Prime Minister’s alcohol strategy? Unfortunately, so many of these incidents of crime correlate with alcohol and drug misuse.

I commend the work of Woking street angels in my constituency, and similar street angels across the country, and also pay tribute to the licensed taxi drivers who have an arrangement with the street angels to take drunk and incapacitated passengers safely home, unless they are potentially violent, in which case the police are called. The drivers sometimes do that at no cost to the passengers. Is that something that my hon. Friend would like to see in more parts of the country?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many excellent initiatives in towns across the country. They have recognised the problem of growing levels of alcohol abuse and the late night trade generally. We see organisations such as street angels working with the police, local authorities and taxi companies to ensure that towns do not suffer as a result of people staying out too long and that they get home safely. That relates to the point the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about the importance of local initiatives being given a national profile so that we can make changes all the way across.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) enables me to segue over to talk about the safety of passengers. It is a sad reflection on the taxi industry that, despite the significant efforts made by local authorities, which he mentioned, any cursory review of local newspapers will readily identify cases of assault—frequently sexual assault—of passengers by taxi drivers. That is the flipside of the issue of vulnerability. There is the vulnerability of drivers who are on their own, perhaps with cash, and the vulnerability of people being driven home on their own. In 2002, the Metropolitan police estimated that in London alone 214 women had been raped or sexually assaulted in such circumstances in the preceding year. The figure fell to 93 by 2009 but has recently increased.

There is a range of initiatives that national Government and local authorities are taking to reduce risks to passengers. I will not dwell on those in too much detail, but a particular issue I want to highlight for the Minister is the limitations and availability of publicly held data that might be useful in reducing offences against passengers. There are currently 384 licensing authorities in the UK, each of which will have its own policies on the collection of data on drivers, such as their Criminal Records Bureau checks, and on their vehicles, and each authority will have its own rules about sharing that information. As we know, information is power, and that power ought to be available to passengers, should they wish to have it, when they hire a cab. It would provide reassurance to know that the vehicle and the driver are properly licensed.

Am I safe? is a service that currently operates in more than 50 towns and covers 10% of the UK population, but it reports that local authority information gathering is patchy and that the timeliness of updates varies. I do not know whether that application is the best, but I believe that it makes sense to make this regulated information more accessible and more accurate. Therefore, I ask the Minister for his views on the value of a national registration database of private hire drivers and licensed vehicles and, more broadly, his comments on the need for rigour in data collection and CRB checks.

Often, in towns and villages throughout our country, the only public transport option for getting back home after a night out is a cab—a private hire vehicle or hackney carriage. It is time for the Government, notwithstanding the Law Commission’s review of legislation, to come forward with some initiatives that will make our private hire and taxi sectors a respected part of our transport system—a status that they and we, the public, deserve.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for raising this important subject of taxi and private hire vehicle safety, and for securing the time to allow us to debate the issues. This debate comes at a time when there have been a number of very serious alleged assaults on and by taxi drivers, and that is a matter of great concern.

Licensing authorities will do their best, I am sure, but the unfortunate fact remains that taxis and private hire vehicles can never be perfectly safe. They are often hired from isolated places at night; drivers carry cash; and, self-evidently, taking a taxi or private hire vehicle generally involves getting into a car with a stranger. That combination of factors makes drivers and passengers particularly vulnerable to violence, and it is important that we take what steps we can to minimise the risks.

In looking at safety, we normally focus on the passenger’s perspective, but my hon. Friend quite rightly refers to the dangers that exist for drivers as well. A report from the Department in 2007 found that on average three drivers a year are killed unlawfully. Each crime is of course unacceptable, but it is worth putting into context the fact that journeys in taxis and private hire vehicles account for just over 1% of all journeys per person per year, and that is 700 million journeys or 3.5 billion miles per year. That, of course, is of no comfort to those who are subject to the unwarranted and unprovoked attacks to which my hon. Friend referred.

Let me look at how we might make the experience safer for the passenger and driver, starting with the passenger. First, local authorities, as licensing authorities, are obliged to ensure that only those who are “fit and proper”—the term in law—should be licensed as taxi or private hire vehicle drivers, and it falls to individual councils to ensure that that is the case.

The Criminal Records Bureau check is a central element of that assessment process. A number of organisations have raised with me their concerns that some taxi drivers have only a standard criminal record check because the law does not allow for all of them to have enhanced checks. Enhanced criminal record checks include any relevant local police information, in addition to a record of previous criminal convictions, cautions and warnings, but those checks have, in law, been restricted to drivers who work regularly with vulnerable adults or with children.

I agree that licensing authorities should be able to see enhanced criminal record checks in respect of all taxi and private hire vehicle driver licence applicants, regardless of the type of work that they intend to undertake once licensed, and I have been working closely with colleagues in the Home Office and, in particular, with my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, who announced in January that all taxi and private hire vehicle drivers will be entitled to enhanced criminal record checks. The necessary legislative change has now been made by the Home Office, and today I can confirm that it will come into force on 26 March.

The Minister for Equalities also announced that licensing authorities will be entitled to check whether any applicant is barred from working with children or with vulnerable adults under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. That is a good example of the Government listening to the experts and acting accordingly. Licensing officers have told us that they need to be able to see enhanced criminal record checks in order to make a proper assessment of applicants’ suitability, and we are responding by providing them with the tools that they need to carry out that vital task.

There is also a growing need for information about licensed vehicles, a point that my hon. Friend helpfully made in his lucid comments. That information enables the public to verify immediately whether a given vehicle is licensed, and it helps with the “traceability” trail. There is a difficulty when it involves personal information relating to individuals, but that is a matter for local authorities to weigh up against their wider obligations and considerations, including, under the Data Protection Act 1998, the protection of personal information.

I am happy to say, however, that I am aware of Transport for London’s vehicle-checker facility, which enables the public to input a vehicle registration plate and discover whether the vehicle is actually licensed as a private hire vehicle. That is a helpful facility, and I for one cannot see why licensing authorities should hold back on providing such information. As I was aware that my hon. Friend might raise that matter, I spoke to a leading national licensing organisation just yesterday and said that I thought it ought to respond positively to requests for vehicle licensing information, if not proactively put it on its website. It agreed, and said that it would disseminate that message to its member authorities.

I move on to the hugely important issue of drivers’ personal safety. I was very sorry to learn of the incidents in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I extend my sympathies and those of the Government to those who have been subject to serious assaults there and elsewhere, and perhaps particularly to the family of the 61-year-old grandfather to whom he referred. I was particularly horrified by my hon. Friend’s description of the range of weapons that are sometimes used against drivers who are simply going about their lawful business. It is intolerable that they should be subject to attacks such as he described. The lack of respect to which he referred is clearly an important factor to be taken into account.

I turn to the questions that my hon. Friend asked. I agree with him that there is a problem of perception. We will examine the parallel position of doormen, to which he referred, to see whether there are lessons that might be sensibly transferred across.

My hon. Friend asked about statistics. Because licensing is largely a local function—it has been since 1847 or before—there is not the depth of national statistics that he or I might like. However, we will talk to the statisticians to see what is available, and I will write to him to let him know. We will also consider whether the statistics that are available in different places might be accumulated to give us a better picture of what is happening. Of course, local authorities may hold information, and I will ask my officials to talk to the national body of licensing officers to see whether it has information that might throw a light on the matter and what else might usefully be done. If there is information such as he mentioned, I will happily share it with the Prime Minister’s team that is examining the alcohol strategy and with the Home Office more generally in respect of the crime statistics that it collects. I certainly agree that it might be useful to track criminal attacks on private hire vehicle and taxi drivers more formally.

I am familiar with the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, because I was on the Bill Committee when it was taken through Parliament. It was a useful Act. I am not aware that it has been applied directly in cases such as we are discussing, but I am happy to ensure that my colleagues at the Home Office are made aware of my hon. Friend’s comments and concerns on that matter and others affecting them. I will write to the relevant Minister to make him or her aware of the contents of today’s debate and my hon. Friend’s comments, including those relating to the Act.

My hon. Friend mentioned CCTV. Any decision to install it in cabs or elsewhere must of course involve clarity about the purpose of doing so. It is important to consider carefully its potential contribution towards achieving that purpose, the costs and whether the intrusion into individual privacy is appropriate and proportionate. CCTV in taxis and private hire vehicles is by its nature intrusive, putting law-abiding people under surveillance and recording their movements, although it might be argued that individuals accept that by flagging down a taxi or booking a private hire vehicle.

CCTV can be effective in both preventing and detecting crime and antisocial behaviour, and owners and drivers of vehicles understandably often want to install security measures to protect the driver. However, there is a balance to be struck, not least given the Data Protection Act’s provisions on the processing of personal data. Nevertheless, the personal security of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers and staff clearly needs to be considered as well.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires local authorities and others to consider crime and disorder reduction while exercising all their duties. The Department’s best practice guidance suggests that the installation and use of appropriate safety measures is best left to the judgment of the owners and drivers themselves, but we would encourage licensing authorities to look sympathetically on, or actively encourage, measures that protect drivers.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Protection of Freedoms Bill is being considered in another place. The Bill includes provisions further to regulate CCTV and other surveillance camera systems. Those provisions include the introduction of a statutory surveillance camera systems code of practice and the appointment of a surveillance camera commissioner to encourage compliance, provide advice and information, and monitor the code’s effectiveness. I will maintain an interest in the development of the code to ensure that CCTV associated with public transport, including taxis, is addressed appropriately.

Drivers can use a range of other security measures to improve their personal safety, including conflict avoidance training. The Department has issued guidance for taxi and PHV drivers about how best to protect themselves, and that is on the Department’s website.

Clearly, enforcement is a hot topic. I commend Transport for London’s Safer Travel at Night campaign, which aims to reduce the number of cab-related sexual offences by raising awareness of the dangers of using unbooked minicabs, also known as touts, and illegal cabs. It also involves targeted police and enforcement activity to identify, disrupt and deter illegal cab activity. Transport for London has, through a sustained effort, made great strides in reducing cab-related sexual offences and instances of touting, although I accept that there remains an outstanding concern relating to pedicabs, which are outwith the PHV and taxi licensing system.

More generally, I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend said, the Law Commission has agreed to undertake a comprehensive review of the law governing taxis and PHVs. The fact that taxis outside London are licensed under an Act of 1847, and those inside London under an Act dating from 1869, speaks volumes. The Law Commission is a body dedicated to, and expert in, unravelling complex and archaic legislation and replacing it with modern, simplified legislation, and I hope that it will take on board issues relating to safety as part of its work. The commission embarked on the review in July 2011, it will be consulting in the spring, and it will provide us with a report and draft Bill in November 2013.

I hope that that is helpful in taking forward the genuine and proper concerns that my hon. Friend has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.