[Relevant documents: Fourteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2013-14, on Legislative Scrutiny: (1) Criminal Justice and Courts and (2) Deregulation Bill, HC 1293; and Second Report of 2014 from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Work of the Committee in 2013, HC 1173 of Session 2013-14.]
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 4
Removal of restriction on investigation of tramway accidents in Scotland by RAIB
‘(1) The Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 14 (extent of Part 1: investigation of railway accidents by Rail Accident Investigation Branch), omit subsection (2) (which prevents the Part from applying to tramways in Scotland).
(3) In consequence of subsection (2), omit section 1(3).” —(Tom Brake.)
Part 1 of the Railways and Transport Safety 2003 does not currently apply to tramways in Scotland and so the Rail Accident Investigation Branch cannot investigate tramway accidents there. This amendment removes that restriction.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 25—Civil penalties for parking contraventions: enforcement.
Amendment 61, page 7, line 22, leave out clause 10, clause 11 and clause 12.
Government amendment 13.
Amendment 1, page 26, line 4, clause 35, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert “in paragraph (a) leave out from “if new and important evidence” to “discovered” and insert
“where secondary investigations have enabled more new, significant, or important evidence to become available, having particular regard to—
(i) enhancing and preserving the rights of those affected by a maritime accident to learn from the proceedings of such reinvestigations and conclusions drawn from them; and
(ii) future safety issues and measures.”.”
Government amendments 36 to 49, 51, 24 and 26.
This group of amendments covers accident investigation, parking contravention, driving, and private hire vehicle licensing.
New clause 4 and amendment 24 deal with rail accidents and, specifically, tram investigations in Scotland. They will remove a prohibition in the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 that prevents the Rail Accident Investigation Branch from investigating tram accidents in Scotland. The prohibition was originally included at the explicit request of the Scottish Executive because operation and safety matters on tramways are a devolved matter. Until now, this has not been an issue as there were no tramways in Scotland, and in practice the power would never have been exercised. However, now that the Edinburgh tramway has entered public service, the prohibition is no longer appropriate. This is a devolved matter, so the consent of the Scottish Parliament is needed. Scottish Ministers will support the legislative consent motion required to remove the prohibition.
The RAIB is already a UK-wide organisation. Its inspectors investigate accidents and incidents on all mainline services, including in Scotland, and currently undertake investigations of tramway accidents in England and Wales. RAIB inspectors already have the required investigative expertise and the necessary powers to conduct a thorough investigation and make recommendations to ensure that lessons are learned. Should there be an accident or incident on the Edinburgh tramway, it is therefore appropriate that RAIB inspectors should be able to undertake an investigation.
If the prohibition on undertaking investigations of tramway accidents or incidents in Scotland were not removed, RAIB inspectors would have no statutory power to investigate, so the safety implications of any accident or incident might not be fully exposed, and there might be repeat incidents if the root causes are not addressed. Although the new clause is only small, the implications for the continued safety of our rail network of perpetuating the prohibition are significant.
The RAIB has already shown its considerable value in contributing to our having one of the safest rail networks in the world. I of course hope that it will never be necessary for RAIB inspectors to be deployed, but we must not be complacent. This is an opportunity to remove a small legislative anomaly, enabling RAIB inspectors to apply their considerable experience and expertise consistently across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am afraid that I do not have figures to hand on accidents relating to trams in England and Wales, but I will write to my right hon. Friend on that subject. I assume that any investigation of an accident would assess its causes—for instance, if it involved a vehicle driving on to the tramlines—and would make recommendations about how to deal with such issues.
Government new clause 25 relates to changes in the use of CCTV for issuing parking tickets by post. The Government are concerned that the use of CCTV for on-street parking is no longer proportionate, and that local councils over-employ it to deal with contraventions when it would be more appropriate and fair for such contraventions to be handled by a civil enforcement officer. We have therefore committed ourselves to ban the use of CCTV for on-street parking enforcement. That was announced in September and re-stated in December 2013 as part of a package of measures designed to support high streets.
Under existing measures, when a CCTV camera is used by a civil enforcement officer to identify a parking offence, a penalty charge notice can be issued to the offender by post. In practice, that means that drivers may receive a parking ticket through the post several weeks after an incident, which makes it difficult to challenge the alleged contravention.
The Government are concerned that a proliferation of CCTV cameras for offences such as parking may undermine public acceptance of their wider beneficial use. To introduce the change, we need to amend legislation to prevent local authorities from relying so heavily on CCTV for parking enforcement.
The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that the new clause relates to parking, but will he confirm that CCTV cameras can still be used for issuing fines via the post for other offences, such as parking on zig-zag lines in front of schools?
I will come on to that point in a few moments.
New clause 25 will amend part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to prevent the automatic issuing by post of fines for parking offences, and instead require that notification of penalty charges is given by a notice attached to the vehicle.
The new clause includes a wider power to cater for an outright ban on CCTV if that is considered necessary in future. However, the Government intend to protect the use of CCTV cameras where there is a strong safety argument for doing so. Their use will therefore be banned in all but the following limited circumstances: when stopped in restricted areas outside a school; when stopped where prohibited on a red route or clearway; when parked where prohibited in a bus lane; or when stopped on a restricted bus stop or stand.
What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about his statement at the weekend that local authorities are not able to make a profit from CCTV cameras, and what does he think about that?
I have not had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government since his announcement at the weekend. It is very clear that local authorities cannot issue parking fines to raise funds for other purposes, but that they can use the money from parking fines to invest in transport and some environmental measures. The Government are concerned that the family of local authorities as a whole has a surplus of about £630 million in funds raised through parking tickets. We believe that we have taken a sensible and proportionate approach by ensuring the power has the ability to exempt key parts of the road network so that we reach the right balance of fair enforcement in the right places.
I now move on to amendment 61 on taxis and private hire vehicles.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is a very good point, which I think it would be more appropriate to respond to in writing. Clearly, there may well be contractual issues. If local authorities have entered into contracts for, say, a five-year period, there may be implications, so rather than giving him an off-the-cuff response, I will write to him on that point.
Amendment 61 would remove from the Bill the three clauses that relate to taxis and private hire vehicles. That is not a course of action that the Government intend to adopt. On the contrary, we consider that the taxi and private hire vehicle clauses will have significant benefits, both in terms of cost savings for the trade and convenience for passengers, and we are determined to see those benefits realised.
Will the Minister explain why he has not listened to what the travelling public want? There is huge concern about these clauses. He has not consulted the Local Government Association, nor has he listened to the public or the evidence, and as a result, he is going to put public safety at risk.
I cannot agree with that at all. We are not putting public safety at risk, and I think the people who have concerns about safety do at least have London to consider, where, of course, all the measures apply, and I am not aware of significant issues being raised in relation to safety in London.
Clause 10 concerns the circumstances in which a private hire vehicle driver’s licence is required. Its purpose is to allow people who do not hold a private hire vehicle driver’s licence outside London and Plymouth to drive a licensed private hire vehicle when the vehicle is off duty. At a stroke, that will lift the burden that many families currently face of having to run a second car so that other family members can drive for domestic purposes. I have heard arguments to the effect that this will be unsafe and that the Government are being reckless in taking forward the policy, but I do not agree with that.
There was a case in the local Slough magistrates court on these issues very recently, and those who were charged were found guilty and fined extensively. The comments from the magistracy are interesting. The court said that they regarded this as a very serious set of offences, putting the public at risk and depriving legitimate drivers of income. They were particularly concerned that the trigger incident involved a lone female being collected late at night from Wexham Park hospital. Is that not evidence that these sorts of changes are required?
I certainly agree with those organisations that we need to be concerned about rogue, unlicensed taxis, but I do not think that anything the Government are putting forward today will increase the likelihood of there being rogue, unlicensed taxi operators. For instance, a private hire operator passing on a job to another will be passing the job on to an operator who is, of course, licensed.
I will make some progress.
Safeguards will be in place, the main one being that the law will continue to prohibit people who do not hold a PHV driver’s licence from acting as a PHV driver. It was with safety in mind that we decided to alter the position in London by introducing the reverse burden of proof: where a driver without a PHV licence is caught driving a licensed PHV with a passenger on board, the Bill places the onus on the driver to show that the vehicle was not being used as a hire vehicle at the time. We believe that that approach will make the job of enforcement more straightforward for local authorities.
Clause 11 will standardise the duration of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers’ licences at three years, and private hire operator licences at five years. Shorter licence durations will be permitted, but only according to the circumstances of a given case and not on a blanket basis. That will apply in England and Wales, but not in London or Plymouth. I have heard arguments about the adverse safety implications of clause 11, and about licensing authorities losing their ability to monitor drivers sufficiently. The three-year licence duration applies to more than 50,000 taxi and PHV drivers in London, and outside London just under half of licensing authorities set that duration for their drivers, so that measure is already common. We recognise that local authorities take their taxi licensing responsibilities seriously, which is commendable.
The National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers, the National Taxi Association, and the National Private Hire Association are totally opposed to these clauses. Why is the Minister not listening to those who have to enforce the regulations or who are part of the delivery of our taxi services?
The Government have listened to and taken on board concerns expressed by a range of organisations, and have also heard support for the measures we are proposing. We think it important not to place a burden on private hire vehicle drivers that requires them to have a second vehicle in their family to enable them to get around. Safety is vital when licensing taxi and PHV drivers; that is why local authorities are allowed to take into account the criminal records of driver’s licence applicants. Best practice guidance advises licensing authorities to undertake formal criminal record checks every three years, and that facility will still be available. Moreover, the new Disclosure and Barring Service allows taxi and PHV drivers to sign up to an updating service that will allow licensing authorities to make inquiries about the drivers they licence, should they feel the need to do so.
Clause 12 allows private hire vehicle operators to subcontract bookings to operators licensed in a different district. It will apply in England and Wales, outside London and Plymouth. Once again, the clause has been opposed on safety grounds, with arguments that enforcement will be difficult. I stress that that measure already applies in London—I am not aware of any enforcement issues—and the principle of subcontracting, albeit to an operator in the same district, is already enshrined in provincial legislation. I cannot see how allowing PHV operators to subcontract journeys across borders will generate safety issues. Operators will be allowed to subcontract bookings only to other operators who are properly licensed, and those operators will have to fulfil their bookings using properly licensed drivers and vehicles.
The Minister says that he is not aware of any enforcement issues, but may I remind him that the real public safety concern is the number of bogus, unlicensed taxis that operate—particularly in London—and pose a threat to the welfare of women travelling home late in the evening? Last year there were 250 assaults and 56 rapes. Measures that will make that situation worse by making the system more difficult to enforce—that is what the Government propose—should surely concern the right hon. Gentleman and the whole House.
Again, I agree that the Government, local authorities, the police and campaigning organisations should do everything they can to ensure that women and other users of private hire vehicles use only licensed vehicles, and that there is a strong clampdown on those who are operating illegally. Again, I do not think that anything the Government are proposing in these clauses will have the effect that the hon. Gentleman seems to be saying they will.
As I have said, if, for instance, an operator cannot do a job in an outside area and passes on the responsibility to another licensed operator, that operator will be licensed, and there will be enforcement associated with that licence. Enforcement authorities will be able to check the operator’s records for any given booking to ensure that it has been undertaken lawfully.
To sum up, these are tried and tested measures. We believe there are adequate safeguards in place. We acknowledge, of course, that the Law Commission review is a significant landmark to those who have a keen or vested interest in the evolution of taxi licensing and regulation, but the key point is that that review will not deliver tangible change in the next year, whereas these measures will. They in no way undermine or nullify the Law Commission’s review; they are simply the first steps on a long deregulatory journey, which will continue when the Government find an opportunity to take forward the Bill that will arise from that review. The Government are firmly of the view that clauses 10 to 12 should remain part of the Bill, and that amendment 61 should be resisted.
The Minister says these measures will be helpful, but Hyndburn borough council currently cannot take enforcement action against taxis from another authority, such as Rossendale, and his proposals will only aggravate the situation. Will he confirm that that is the case?
At the risk of repeating myself, I do not think that any action the Government are taking will put people at risk.
Let me respond to a couple of earlier interventions. It was suggested, for instance, that we have not consulted. We have indeed consulted: we conducted a targeted consultation earlier this year and also tapped into the extensive consultation conducted by the Law Commission during its comprehensive review. Nor is it true that no one wants the measures we are proposing. For instance, the Private Hire Reform Campaign is highly supportive of all these measures, and after extensive consultation, the Law Commission recommended all three of them in its most recent comprehensive review of taxi legislation.
I am afraid that I will move on now to Government amendments 13 and 51, which deal with the duration of driving licences granted to drivers with relevant or prospective disabilities. The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 provides that drivers with relevant or prospective medical conditions may be issued only with time-limited driving licences with a maximum duration of three years. That means that drivers with relevant medical conditions need to reapply for their licence at least once every three years. In many cases, where a medical condition is well controlled or progressing only slowly, a three-yearly review is unnecessary. Our amendments will enable the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to issue licences with a duration of up to 10 years.
Every licence application will still be considered on a case-by-case basis, and licences will still be issued for shorter periods where that is appropriate. Only drivers with conditions that are considered low-risk and unlikely to progress quickly will get a licence of longer duration, so road safety will not be compromised. A driver will still have a legal duty to tell the DVLA of any condition that he or she has developed or that has deteriorated, and it is an offence to fail to do so. Doctors and other third parties, such as the police, can also notify the DVLA when patients or drivers who have a notifiable medical condition, or do not tell the DVLA about it, come to their attention.
When the DVLA consulted on this proposal, 81% of respondents said they supported it. Those expressing support included the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the RAC Foundation, the Epilepsy Society, Diabetes UK, the Royal College of Physicians and the Freight Transport Association. Our amendments will ease the burden on motorists who currently need to make unnecessary applications every three years. They will also ease the burden on GPs, who have to complete the administrative work, and the DVLA, where applications are processed.
Let me turn to marine investigations and the Opposition’s amendment 1. Hon. Members have referred to the campaign—which was supported by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—by the relatives of those lost in the sinking of the MV Derbyshire. I recognise that the amendment is intended to ensure that a future campaign of a similar type that uncovered new evidence would lead to the reopening of the formal investigation into the relevant accident. However, hard cases make bad law.
No one questions the valuable outcome of the reopening of the formal investigation into the Derbyshire, or the commitment of the campaigners to improving maritime safety, but the amendment would enable anyone who disagreed with the findings of an investigation to search for new evidence and, regardless of how trivial that evidence might be, compel the Secretary of State to reopen the investigation. In the Government’s view, that would do nothing to advance the cause of maritime safety.
Let me repeat the advice given in Committee about how the Secretary of State would approach the decision on whether to reopen an investigation. Each case for reopening would be considered on its merits. The points for consideration would include, but not be limited to: the likelihood of lessons being learned that would improve the safety of marine operations and ship design; the likelihood of being able to identify the true cause or causes of marine accidents, where those causes were particularly uncertain prior to the evidence being found; and the likelihood of uncovering information that would provide a deeper understanding of the causes of other marine accidents. Let me reassure hon. Members that I agree that the reopened formal investigation into the MV Derbyshire was valuable and led to real improvements in maritime safety. If similar circumstances applied again, I am convinced that the Secretary of State would reopen the investigation.
A more general point about marine accidents is relevant here. All of us who represent marine communities know just how hard it is for bereaved families to come to terms with their loss in the event of marine accidents, and that is made all the harder when they do not know what happened, and when unanswered questions remain. Anything that makes it harder, more costly and more bureaucratic for the families to get the answers they need must be a retrograde step. I ask the Minister to look more carefully at not just this single instance, but at the framework, and to think again about how he takes forward the regulations on this issue. It is a huge comfort to bereaved families to find out what actually happened to their loved ones.
Of course it is. I have just stated the parameters that will be used to establish whether it is appropriate to reopen an investigation. We would, of course, want to ensure that the families had the answers that they wanted and deserved, so that they could get closure. We are arguing only about whether there should be a mandatory requirement on the Secretary of State to reopen formal inquiries, irrespective of the value of any new evidence that comes forward, and however small it is.
I hope to catch the Speaker’s eye later and contribute to the debate. The Minister may be convinced, but it is the seafarers and their families who need convincing, and they are not convinced. Will he clarify the process from here onwards? Will there be detailed regulation and consultation? If the legislation is agreed to today, how do we go forward towards implementation?
I shall respond to that shortly, but let me restate that I do not believe that anything we are proposing would have got in the way of the MV Derbyshire inquiry. All the evidence surrounding that shows that under these proposals the Secretary of State would still have reopened the investigation. All we are talking about is whether there should be an automatic trigger, irrespective of the nature of the evidence that comes forward. That is the only point that is in dispute, and I am absolutely certain that if the current Secretary of State or any future Secretary of State felt that the evidence brought forward could, in any shape or form, lead to further safety improvements being identified, they would want to proceed with a formal inquiry. I think most Members would agree that if, 100 years from now, a formal investigation was automatically triggered under this legislation by something that happened today, that would not be likely to make a significant contribution to improving safety.
Amendments 36 to 49 make minor technical improvements to the drafting of schedule 2. Amendments 36, 37 and 39 make drafting changes to render the language more consistent. Amendments 40 and 43 relate to new section 128ZZA, which allows the registrar to cancel a requirement to undergo an emergency control assessment when it is appropriate to do so. The policy intention was to cover all ECAs, but cross-references were missed, so the Bill does not cover the ECAs that are required in relation to licences for trainee instructors. Amendments 40 and 43 simply extend the new section to cover ECAs in connection with licences.
Amendment 41 amends new section 133B(2A), which concerns the ability to retake failed ECAs. It inserts references to assessments required in relation to licences for trainee instructors, which will ensure that the ability to retake a failed assessment applies to all assessments, regardless of the stage at which they were originally ordered. New section 133B(5A) states that a person applying to undergo a further ECA cannot do so until after a further six months, or any other such period prescribed by regulations. Amendments 38 and 42 simply allow a person to retake an ECA before the end of the six-month period in cases in which that is appropriate. Amendments 44 to 49 make consequential amendments to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 to reflect amendments made to the Act by schedule 2 to the Bill.
Let me now conclude my remarks—
I rise to speak briefly on Government new clause 25 and more specifically to our amendments 61 and 1, which relate to taxis and maritime issues respectively.
First, I shall comment on what the Minister said about the CCTV measure. The short notice of the introduction of the amendment—it appeared only at the end of last week—suggests that it was a political hot potato, passed between the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government. There have long been rumours that the DCLG intended to scrap the use of CCTV even in sensitive areas, in contrast to the wishes of DFT Ministers. Over the weekend, press coverage of the issue was almost entirely dominated by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on whether DFT Ministers decided to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has called a “pickled policy”, or whether this is simply an example of what the Government’s frequent use of the Alice in Wonderland principle of sentence first and trial afterwards.
It concerns us greatly that the measure was introduced so late in the day. It is at odds with the consultative approach adopted by the Department for Transport. A range of organisations, including Living Streets, the Local Government Association, the British Parking Association, the Freight Transport Association, Disabled Motorists UK, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and Guide Dogs for the Blind, have made their concerns known, yet the Government published the new measure before seeing those responses.
There are of course legitimate concerns that councils have been using cameras as a routine means of parking enforcement; that is wrong. There have also been problems where stickers, such as resident permits and blue badges, have not been visible and drivers have wrongly been issued with tickets; that is an occurrence that we should make as infrequent as possible. It is understandable that drivers become frustrated when the first they hear of an infringement is a letter through the post, without the opportunity to discuss the circumstances with an enforcement officer. So we agree with the Select Committee on Transport that there should be greater oversight of the way in which local authorities use cameras to institute penalty charges, but that could be done through statutory and operational guidance, which is exactly what the groups I just mentioned would have liked.
CCTV remains vital for parking and for traffic and safety enforcement in certain areas where the use of parking officers is not practical: schools, bus stops, bus lanes, junctions and pedestrian crossings all come into that category. We hear from the Government response to their consultation that those areas are to be exempted and that CCTV could still be used in these circumstances, but that is not on the face of the Bill and we would welcome confirmation that this is the case and that plans will be put into practice.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that there are times when a camera-based system can get the wrong end of the stick? A constituent of mine was prosecuted for moving into a bus lane; they did so to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle, but the council still went ahead with the prosecution.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an instance of which he has the full details but I do not. I will not comment on the particular point but will comment on the general point, which is as I have just said: these matters are best dealt with by discussions with the enforcement officer before the ticket is issued. To that extent, I think we are at one.
The reality is that if we relax legislation of this kind, especially when the exemptions are not on the face of the Bill, certain people will take advantage of the situation—drive in bus lanes because they think they might not get caught, for example. There were cases some years ago in which CCTV of cars in bus lanes picked up many vehicles that were driven by criminals on the run for other causes. Once a criminal, always a criminal, and such people will take advantage.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that underlines why the Government should have given much more careful consideration to the thoughtful proposals and sometimes quite detailed comments submitted by the various groups before bringing forward these measures as part of this rag-bag Bill.
We do not object to the Government’s amendments reining in the use of CCTV in place of everyday traffic enforcement but, as is obvious from the comments we have already heard today, the whole House would welcome answers from the Minister, so we can ensure that vital spots such as bus routes and school runs continue to be protected by CCTV and we know the details of how that will be assured in legislation.
Amendment 61 would remove clauses 10 to 12. The Deputy Leader of the House will not want to hear this, but we strongly oppose the Government proposals on changing taxi and minicab law simply and crucially because it will put passengers at risk. I listened carefully to his opening comments: he said the Government are determined to see the reforms implemented, which reminded me of the old speaker’s note, “Argument weak here, shout like mad”—although, to be fair, being a Liberal Democrat, he did not shout. He really ought to take note of what Members have said today, particularly the interventions from my hon. Friends the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) about the particular concerns that women have —my hon. Friend the Member for Slough referred to an awful case—and about the vital issue of enforcement. On the basis of the reassurances he has given today, the Minister cannot guarantee that the Government will be able to enforce the current safeguards. The issue is one of enforcement.
The Minister talked about the “targeted consultation”—a wonderful phrase. We were told by Harold Wilson some while ago that a week is a long time in politics. Perhaps the Minister, being a Liberal Democrat, thinks that 10 days is an eternity, but 10 days is in fact the amount of time that was allowed for this “targeted” consultation. I doubt whether many people listening today will be particularly impressed with that process.
I always tell my constituents not to believe everything that is in the papers, but Guido Fawkes carried a number of stories in an online blog about the unions lobbying on these issues and financial interconnections between members of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and the unions on this matter. Was there any evidence behind those rumours and is there anything to be declared?
Not on my part, I do not think; I think the only thing to be declared is the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to pursue something on a blog that, as various people know, may or may not have some foundation. In this case, it obviously does not have much foundation.
My hon. Friend makes the point for me.
The truth of the matter is that once again an ideological imperative to be seen to be cutting red tape is resulting in vital principles of good governance being relegated. Although we have rightly had a long drawn-out process from the Law Commission’s proposals to consider all the interests involved—I shall come on to some of those in due course and perhaps put the hon. Gentleman’s somewhat paranoid mind at rest—it has been marred by the Government’s rushed and risky proposals. These plans have been poorly drafted and badly consulted on and they could put the travelling public in danger.
Taxis and private hire vehicles play a vital part in connecting people’s lives. They provide a wide range of services—everything from trips to the airport to early morning trips back from nightclubs. They are an essential means of transport for a wide range of people without access to a car, particularly in cut off or rural locations. For young people—sometimes for recreation, but also for work, training or family commitments—and for older people, they are a lifeline, providing mobility and social cohesion.
Previous work, including that of the Transport Committee in 2011, showed that the regulation governing the trade is often complex and contentious. We, therefore, like so many organisations outside this House, hoped that the DFT would approach reform in an inclusive, comprehensive and balanced way, especially looking to use the expertise of users, taxi operators and local councils in piloting a new course. Sadly, that has not been the case. Opposition to these measures is widespread: the police, industry bodies and members of the trade themselves are warning that they have severe safety implications. Yet Ministers have introduced the specifics of the plans late in the passage of the Bill, leaving little opportunity for real engagement with industry stakeholders.
Despite the excellent speech made on 29 April in Westminster Hall by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield—he has been steadfast and vocal on the threat that this part of the Bill poses to vulnerable taxi drivers, and even today has been meeting delegations from a range of organisations concerned about the proposals—it is still not clear why these measures were not included in the Bill on Second Reading, so they could have been debated more fully. Is this a reflection of their on-the-hoof nature, or a conscious attempt to avoid the criticism that would inevitably follow?
The context of today’s discussion is important. We should consider the questions that the rise of new services such as Uber pose about the impact of new technologies on the trade. The Government must be clear about what priorities they set for private transport companies, and surely those should be safety and security. That is quite the opposite of the piecemeal reforms being introduced in the Bill. What is needed is a far more comprehensive look at the regulation and enforcement of the taxi and private hire trade. That is exactly what the Law Commission announcement about the need for a new national framework underlined, so why on earth are this Government cutting the ground from beneath the Law Commission’s feet with these ill-thought-through proposals?
In the detail of the clauses we are opposing, the Government plan to allow people without a licence for a minicab to drive one when it is off duty. That could or will greatly increase the potential for rogue minicab drivers, who appear no different from legal drivers on the streets and could threaten vulnerable passengers, including women, who enter their vehicles. It will be nearly impossible to enforce these rules; it will be difficult to monitor whether a minicab is in service or off duty, and whether the driver is a minicab licence holder or not. The Minister may respond, as he has before, by talking about London—several times in his speech I thought he was grasping at London like a drowning man grasping at straws—but other areas of the country do not have the same resources for enforcement, and the sad truth is that rapes and sexual assaults committed by people purporting to be private hire drivers are not uncommon. The changes to the law are rightly an issue of public concern.
As my hon. Friends ask from a sedentary position, “How do you know?” I could also talk about the transfer of these licences but, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this is about resources and enforcement. The truth is that we would not know.
The proposed measures might damage the entire legitimate taxi industry, too. Greater Manchester’s police and crime commissioner has said that there is a clear danger that they will lead to an increase in unlicensed private hire drivers taking business illegitimately and that the measures are a backward step for law enforcement. I say again that this move is unnecessary. Why have the Government not listened to the Law Commission, which led an extensive consultation on a complex issue, receiving 3,000 written responses from across the trade? The process involved a series of 84 meetings over four months, an industry survey and meetings—one of which I attended at Blackpool cricket club—where scores of taxi drivers all put useful points. Why have the Government ploughed ahead with these reforms? Was the review simply a waste of money?
My next point deals with the one made by the right hon. Gentleman. Ministers would also let minicab operators subcontract a job to firms in another area, which means the customer booking the taxi could not be sure of the individual or the firm picking them up. Customers would lose their right to select a firm based on a strong reputation for safety. Many vulnerable people may start to lose confidence in their travelling habits if they do not believe they have a safe cab company whose services they can rely on. These proposals also have implications further down the line, for the supply chain in taxis and cabs. We are talking about things being made in the UK, with jobs and livelihoods provided in the UK, and a valuable force for social cohesion. That force will be under threat if the general public lose confidence in the methods of regulation and licensing.
In Southend, I have a regular contract with AC Taxis, as it is convenient; the firm is a good supplier and well trusted in the area. If it had to outsource some of its work, I would expect it, as a reputable firm, to outsource to another reputable firm. It may well outsource to Rochford Taxis, also an excellent supplier, but I would not expect it to go to a random firm to contract out the work. The company would be protecting its reputation, and it would be in its interest to behave in a decent and good way.
The hon. Gentleman is right about that, and he is right to defend the reputation of the company he has had dealings with and knows to be reputable. However, the basis on which we have to proceed in legislation is not what the best would do, but what the worst might do. That is the point I am trying to make. The Law Commission has made it clear that any such arrangements would need to be subject to enforcement officers having the ability to impound vehicles and issue penalties in other areas, so that jobs could be passed between firms more accountably.
The taxi and minicab hire industry in this country is locally and closely regulated by councils, which is where regulation should stay. At the moment, minicabs and taxis can, quite rightly, be driven only by someone who has undergone criminal, medical and background checks by the local authority. By trying to micro-manage the changes from Whitehall, the Government risk jeopardising people’s safety. Members here are quite right to emphasise issues such as women using taxis late at night. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust commented on the proposals, saying that it knows, from the sexual assaults on women each year, that posing as a legitimate minicab driver is what some particularly dangerous sexual predators do. The trust stated that
“moves to allow any individual to drive licensed minicab when it is ‘off duty’ will provide greater opportunity for those intent on preying on women in this way. We are also concerned about the proposal to require licensing authorities to renew licenses on a three-year basis rather than annually, should they wish to: we think that checks on drivers should be as rigorous and frequent as necessary”.
That is what we think as well. It is also what the Local Government Association and the police and crime commissioner for Northumberland, Vera Baird, have said. Sixteen police and crime commissioners from all political parties and none have gone on record to voice their opposition to the process and the proposals that have resulted. Incidentally, they include three former Members of this House: Tony Lloyd, Vera Baird and Jane Kennedy.
There is real anger from people who feel that their voices have been ignored in the process. Government guidance on consultation stresses the importance of adequate time and engagement and transparency with key stakeholders, yet Ministers settled for a short period of consultation to give them a cloak for enacting these controversial and piecemeal reforms. As I have said, the Government would dilute the safety checks by ending mandatory minicab licence renewal. As we have seen all too often, the Government pay lip service to localism, but when they want to beef up their so-called red-tape challenge, any mention of localism goes out of the window. What we then get, as we have with this proposal, is clodhopping centralism, dreamed up in short order to fit their soundbites, ignoring the concerns of all those who have looked at the matter in depth, and posing real safety concerns for people, not least women, who use taxis and private hire vehicles especially at night. I urge all Members who take seriously the safety of our roads and the vulnerable passengers in our community to back this amendment and to delete these clauses.
Finally, I come to amendment 1, which would amend clause 35. Today, the House has an opportunity to change these ill-conceived and potentially dangerous plans to row back the rights of seafarers and their families as they seek to find answers to the causes of marine accidents, and to learn lessons that could save lives. I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say, and felt that he was, from time to time, straining to convince himself rather than the rest of us. He said that hard cases make bad law, which is perfectly correct. Although I shall refer to the MV Derbyshire, it is not the simple thrust of why we have made this proposal. He said that he would be convinced—he used the words “would be”—that the Government’s proposals are adequate. The truth is that it is not good enough for any individual to be convinced that the Government’s proposals are good enough; it is important to have a framework that ensures they are good enough. The Minister said that hard cases make bad law, but I say, having heard him draw on examples from 100 years ago and beyond to the time of the Titanic, that ludicrous examples make bad argument. No one has, at any stage, proposed such a distance in time.
Clause 35 seeks to abolish the duty that obliges the Secretary of State automatically to order that a marine accident investigation case be reheard. This duty was enshrined in the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which followed years of campaigning by unions and the families of those affected by accidents at sea. A number of serious maritime incidents demonstrate how important this duty is. The causes of major incidents involving great loss of life have sometimes been found on the second investigation and after some time. That, of course, includes shipwrecks, which are often discovered following painstaking research and the physical trawling of the seabed.
I strongly support what my hon. Friend says. In more recent times, we have had new technology, which might not have been available when an accident happened. We now might be able to investigate and find the causes of ships sinking or whatever, because of new technology.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case. I commend him for bringing amendment 1 to the Floor of the House, because in a context where it is increasingly difficult for families to get the legal aid that they need to take such things forward, it should not be left to them to launch their own investigations. It is an extremely costly, difficult and distressing process.
The hon. Lady makes an absolutely valid point. Context is all, particularly in this case, which was crucial to the duty being put into law. MV Derbyshire sank in 1980 and was found only in 1994. That example prompted reinvestigation many years after the original incident.
The duty that the Government want to scrap was used in 1998 to reopen the formal investigation into the loss of the Derbyshire in September 1980. The Derbyshire disappeared south of Japan during Typhoon Orchid. All on board—42 crew and two passengers, who were wives of crew members—lost their lives. She remains the largest UK ship ever to have been lost at sea.
A major union-funded search for the vessel in the 1990s, supported by the International Transport Workers Federation—a global organisation, with affiliates in Britain, including the RMT, Unite, the National Union of Seamen, Nautilus International and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and broader support from the Public and the Commercial Services Union, the Communication Workers Union, the GMB and others—was required to make that breakthrough in discovering the wreck of the Derbyshire. That effort identified the wreck in 1994 and led to the introduction of the duty in the 1995 Act to establish the necessary evidence and place the legal obligation on the Government to reopen the investigation.
After nearly 20 years of campaigning, the investigation into the cause of the loss was reopened in 1998, and great credit for that decision goes not just to the organisations I mentioned but to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who galvanised the local campaign and ran an all-party group on the subject, and of course to John, now Lord Prescott, who, as Secretary of State for Transport, invoked the powers for the reinvestigation because he drew on his awareness of the struggle that unions and families had undertaken to find the missing ship. He has recently described the Government’s attempt to remove the duty as a massive insult to those who campaigned for the truth about the Derbyshire.
The steadfast way in which the friends and family group that set up the campaign, based in and around Liverpool, and the poignant memories brought back by the 20th anniversary this year of the finding of the ship testify to the huge importance of the power to reinvestigate, not just to find out new facts but, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) said, to support and recognise the loss of those who were affected. All this has been reflected in the wording of amendment 1.
The reinvestigation absolved the crew of any blame for the loss of the vessel and led to significant improvements in the safe operation of bulk carrier class ships and the understanding of typhoon conditions. For those reasons, the claim made in Committee by the Solicitor-General, who is not in his place, that if a wreck is discovered many years after an accident, safety insights would be irrelevant or out of date, really does not hold water. That argument was disproved by the case of the Derbyshire. Maritime accidents may be relatively rare, but they are tragic events and it is crucial to understand them as fully as we can.
Although it relates to a different mode of transport, the recent search for the Malaysian flight MH370 demonstrates that even in today’s technologically advanced world there are circumstances in which even our greatest efforts struggle to match the vastness of the oceans our ships and planes traverse. Who knows when future evidence on that incident will emerge as to the plane’s final fate? It might take months, years or even decades.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the context of this debate, the MH370 incident shows that in other circumstances, where such incidents might affect British ships and citizens, Ministers must have flexibility and the power to reopen inquiries. [Interruption.] The Minister says that that is absolutely right, but I will go on to demonstrate that the inadequacies of his clause as drafted would not allow that to happen. If any such tragedy were to occur in British maritime in the future, we must have the law in place to guarantee that men and women working on our ships, and the families who rely on them, get the answers, however long the recovery of evidence takes.
The Government’s preferred approach in this Deregulatory Bill is to retain a discretionary power—a weaker section of the 1995 Act—to rehear such a case if the Secretary of State suspects that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. That is simply an unacceptable weakening of the Secretary of State’s ability to protect seafarers and their families. It downgrades rights from a duty to a mere choice.
Sadly, that was reflected by some of the Solicitor-General’s comments when defending the change in Committee. In response to a challenge from my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), the Solicitor-General said:
“We are talking about something similar to a judicial inquiry, with all the formality and costs associated with it. It is not just about money, but about taking up the time of a huge number of people. If it is a worthwhile exercise, because it will help safety or clear someone’s name, it is obviously worth doing, but it is pointless and expensive if it happens many years later.”––[Official Report, Deregulation Public Bill Committee, 11 March 2014; c. 311.]
Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman did not intend it, but he seemed to suggest that there should almost be a statute of limitations on the timescale that influences a Government’s response. I am sorry to say that grief, support and the ability to find the truth are not always amenable to an automatic, time-limited cut-off point.
There is also a circular problem inherent in the Government’s proposal. It is not clear how the Secretary of State can be expected adequately to assess the existing evidence in order to suspect a miscarriage of justice without the sort of rigorous, independent work carried out by the marine accident investigation branch. The work will now be undertaken by the branch only if the Secretary of State requests it because he already suspects a miscarriage of justice.
It has been claimed that the removal of the duty can be described simply as tidying up in order to synchronise the 1995 Act with other recent guidance. However, recent MAIB guidance has made it very clear that its remit lies only in dealing with the reporting of the circumstances of an accident and not an investigation of its root cause. The MAIB is not—I repeat, not—responsible for enforcement or prosecution of any responsible bodies. Those functions are still underpinned by the 1995 Act.
There is one other factor to take into account: reinvestigation inevitably might mean that difficult truths are unearthed about the adequacy and focus of previous assessments by officials and the Department when making an initial judgment. Any Minister should be able to pursue the process subsequently without fear or favour. Under the element of discretion that the Government propose, that ability might be, or could appear to be, hampered, but retaining the existing duty protects those in government—of whatever party—from any suggestion of partiality with regard to taking forward the reinvestigation process.
The Government’s impact assessment cites a human rights argument in defence of the clause, claiming that the possibility of the future automatic investigation of an accident could have an impact on the career prospects of survivors. However, the Derbyshire reinvestigation showed the value of being able to step back from an initial rush to judgment on the culpability of crew for the accident, because new evidence eventually established unrelated causes.
I have been hugely impressed by the work of campaigners such as Paul Lambert, who represents the families who lost loved ones in the MV Derbyshire accident. They still feel that this is a key issue, as does Mark Dickinson, the general secretary of Nautilus International, who takes a keen interest in the case, not least because, as a member of the International Transport Workers Federation, he helped to co-ordinate the search for the Derbyshire in 1994. I am pleased that amendment 1 has been signed by many hon. Members, several of whom hope to speak in the debate. Some have been contacted by constituents who have been affected by tragedies, while others represent coastal communities. Some are simply loth to see an important safeguard sacrificed so unthinkingly.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) emphasised the importance of maintaining the thrust of the existing duty. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) is to be applauded for frequently, tirelessly and with determination raising this and related maritime matters inside and outside the House. As hon. Members might suspect, there is a real worry that several aspects of the Bill show that the Government, in their bid to be seen as shedding regulation, risk blinding themselves to the value of apparently minor existing legislative provisions and specifications. However, the example of maritime investigations shows that the need for such detail has been vindicated by the blood, sweat and tears of those caught up in such tragedies, and the bitter years of struggle to uncover their causes.
Regrettably, our attempt in Committee to delete clause 35 in its entirety was defeated. However, in an attempt to build consensus, we have tried to recognise the Government’s argument that the Secretary of State should have the flexibility to avoid the costs of reinvestigation when it is absolutely clear that new evidence will be of little or no value to determine the causes of the accident, and if no interested parties are calling for a reinvestigation. However, amendment 1 would ensure that if there was a reasonable possibility that new evidence would provide significant new information about the causes of an accident, answers for the surviving families or safety lessons for today, the duty to reopen the investigation would be retained.
It is imperative that we retain a stronger power than that in the Bill so that the Secretary of State’s default setting is to reopen investigations. We owe it to those who have died or been injured not to remain silent on that point. We must send a clear message to Ministers and civil service administrations of now and the future, and to the men and women who do such valuable and vital work in our maritime economy today, that justice and safety will always come first, which is why I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to reject clause 35 as it stands by voting for amendment 1.
We have just heard 37 minutes of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), largely misunderstanding the Government’s modest proposals or exaggerating their consequences. Let me reassure him that I, too, would wish to see an inquiry into a maritime disaster reopened as soon as there was significant new evidence and a hope of getting closure for the troubled families, or safety recommendations to save people who venture on the seas in the future. I am quite sure that is what the Minister said and, as I understand it, that is exactly what the Bill achieves.
Similarly, in the case of taxis, none of us here wishes to endanger people using taxis, as some Opposition Members seem to think the Government wish to do, but the proposals are nothing to do with that. They are to do with the possible use of a hire car vehicle by the family of the licensed user for their own family purposes, but not plying for hire. It seems a perfectly reasonable and modest proposal so that families who do not have a large income do not have to run two cars, which they might find difficult to do.
I agree, and that is what we are debating today. I am on the side of the Minister on this occasion. He might find that remarkable, but it seemed to me that he made a reasonable and moderate case. The language in the Bill and in the Government amendments does the job, so I am trying to reassure the Opposition, who seem to be giving a long-winded and misguided interpretation of what the Government intend. I would say the proposals are too modest overall. I would like to see more deregulation coming forward in these important areas, but in no way do I wish to jeopardise safety or give people a bad ride in their taxi.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman realises that taxi drivers, private hire vehicle drivers and the rest of the people in the trade are not asking for other drivers to be able to drive their cars; in fact, they are saying that family members should not be allowed to do so.
Some are with the hon. Lady and some are with the Government. She cannot generalise quite as wildly as she does. I understand that some associations take that line, but if one talks to taxi drivers and private vehicle drivers, one finds people on both sides of the argument. I do not want to go into those sensitive issues; I just offered a little support to the Minister because the language captures exactly what everybody in the House wishes to achieve—better safety and security.
I want to concentrate on the issue of car parking. I am grateful that the Government have brought forward, again, an extremely modest proposal to deal with the fact that many motorists feel they are picked on by councils that have turned parking controls into a way of making easy money out of them. The proposal goes only a little way in the direction I would like the Government to take. I understand the Minister’s difficulties, because we need quite a lot of local decision making, but the idea behind his proposal is that simple camera enforcement is not always the right way to go. I gave an example in an intervention to show how camera enforcement of a bus lane proposal could be very misleading and unfair to the individual concerned, who was trying to keep out of the way of an emergency vehicle. That is not always captured by the fixed position of the camera, which concentrates on the bus lane. There could be similar problems with parking enforcement.
The problem, which is a large one for many electors, comes from too many parking restraints and restrictions that have not been well thought through. Once again, Members have rightly defended good parking controls. I am very much in favour of good parking controls. I agree that we need to stop people parking on blind bends, near pedestrian crossings or in places where their vehicle could obstruct the line of sight and endanger safety. I also agree that we need parking restrictions on roads where the parking would get in the way of the flow of traffic, because that not only impedes the traffic and stops people getting to work or taking their children to school, but can create danger by causing frustration among motorists.
It makes sense to have sensible parking restrictions that ensure that the flow on roads is reasonable, junctions have good sight lines and are safe, bends have the best sight lines possible, and so forth. That should be common ground in the House, and I do not think the Minister is trying to stop councils doing that or enforcing those sensible restrictions strongly and fairly, as we want. But the type of parking restriction that we may well be talking about here, where some relaxation is needed, is where a piece of road which the council designates as safe and fair for people to park on at certain times of day or certain days of the week and not others is subject to such complicated regulation that sometimes a law-abiding motorist cannot work out from the local signs and practices whether the parking regulation applies or not. For example, do the parking restrictions apply on bank holidays? Often, the sign is silent on that point. Is the sign clear about whether different rules apply on Sundays? Is the sign close enough to the parking area in question? Are there different restrictions on different sides of the same street, as sometimes happens in London? Do we know where one set of restrictions ends and another begins?
There can also be variable bus lane times, and it can be difficult to keep up with the changing regulations. This shows that there are circumstances in which a council thinks it perfectly reasonable to allow parking in a particular area or use of a bus lane at certain times but not at others. The motorist could be in genuine doubt about the restrictions, or perhaps feel that they were unfair or frivolous because they did not fall into the category of restrictions that are essential to ensuring that traffic can flow and that safety sightlines are maintained.
We can use this little debate to probe the underlying problem that we are trying to address. We can also use it to allow the House of Commons to tell councils that some of them are overdoing parking restrictions or are chopping and changing the regulations too often during the day or on different days of the week. Perhaps those regulations have not been properly thought through. Perhaps the enforcement is unfair, or too sharp. If someone has been delayed by three minutes while paying for something in a shop, they could find that they have committed an offence because they could not get back to their car within the given time on their ticket. People often have to be quite prescient in those circumstances. They need to know exactly how long it will take them to get to the shop, find their goods, queue to pay for them at the till and get out again. They do not want to overpay for what can be quite expensive parking, but if they get it slightly wrong, they can end up with a big fine. That is why people think that this is a nasty lottery in which the councils are the only winners, and camera enforced parking restrictions can be even worse for the individuals concerned.
So, one cheer for the Government for realising that this is a big issue and coming up with their modest proposal on camera enforcement, but may we please have some more, because this does not solve the overall problem? Solving the overall problem will help parades of shops and town centres in places where trade is not good. This irritating, over-bureaucratic, over-regulated parking is one reason that people do not bother even to try to park in those areas, because they think they are going to end up with a fine for behaving perfectly reasonably.
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. I must declare that I am a proud member of Unite the union, which has an interest in the taxi trade, although, sadly, it has not briefed me on this issue.
A few weeks ago, my two Bolton colleagues and I attended a meeting in my constituency which had been called by the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers. In attendance were people from the Law Commission, the Local Government Association, the National Taxi Association, the National Private Hire Association, Unite, the GMB, the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester and councillors from a number of Greater Manchester authorities, including Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale, Trafford, Stockport and Salford. It was interesting that those attendees from a vast range of different backgrounds all spoke with one voice. They did not understand why the clauses affecting taxis were being rushed through in the Deregulation Bill. They wanted them to be withdrawn, and replaced by holistic legislation that focused on the Law Commission review. At a meeting of such a diverse group of people, it is unusual for everyone to speak with one voice.
We know that there are already problems in the system. In the north-west, for instance, Rossendale has licensed more than 1,000 hackney carriages, most of which are being used not in Rossendale but elsewhere. Where are the checks being carried out, and by whom? We do not have national standards, so a taxi that is licensed in Rossendale but does not reach the standards required by the authorities in Bolton could be driving around Bolton. In that situation, a passenger in Bolton who wanted to complain about that taxi could not do so to officers in Bolton, as they would have no right to inspect the vehicle or check the driver.
In Sheffield, North East Derbyshire district council has licensed a Sheffield-based operator that uses hackney carriages licensed by Gedling borough council, so in effect no council has regulatory control. Sheffield council is particularly powerless when there are complaints from Sheffield residents about taxis overcharging or poor driver behaviour. The interesting question for me is why Rossendale, for example, is licensing so many taxi drivers. Why are firms going to Rossendale or Gedling for licences? Is it because the regimes in those places are much easier to get through, or because it is cheaper to get the vehicles licensed there? What is it about the system in those places? When the system as a whole is fractured, there are all sorts of ways for disreputable drivers and companies, or people who are simply trying to make the quickest buck they can, to get through it.
There is also the question of whether operators should be able to make journeys across local area borders. We need to look holistically at what we do about those cross-border journeys to ensure that there can be enforcement of regulations. No matter where a taxi is licensed, if it is operating in Bolton, why can Bolton enforcement officers not be allowed to enforce regulations on that vehicle? I am not sure that the answer is necessarily to say that it is not possible. We need a framework in which it can happen, whereby local authorities can get remuneration to enable them to carry out checks when licensing has been carried out by a different authority. The situation is complex and is made much worse by this Bill.
The issue came to my attention when the parents of a 13-year-old girl came to one of my constituency surgeries because they were concerned about a specific incident that had happened to her. She had taken a taxi. To start with she was going to Bolton, but part way through the journey she received a call from her friend to say they needed to meet elsewhere. It appears that at some point on the journey the taxi driver turned off all his monitoring equipment, including his GPS. The 13-year-old was taken to quite a remote estate in the constituency. The taxi driver parked up and said that he was just waiting for a friend to bring him his mobile phone charger. Fortunately, the girl started to get agitated. She had told the driver that she was 16, because her mum had said that she should tell people that she was a little bit older, thinking that it would offer her protection. In fact, in these circumstances it appears to have done the opposite. The girl became concerned about the questions the taxi driver was starting to ask her about her social life and so on. Fortunately, she had the nous to get out of the taxi. She played a ruse and said she wanted to pop over to a nearby shop and buy some cigarettes, of all things. The taxi driver agreed, saying they could share them, and she got out of the taxi and ran like hell. Fortunately, she met a bystander who listened to her, took her to the local McDonald’s, called the police and waited with her until they turned up.
It turned out that the taxi driver had a record of past misdemeanours. He was taken through the tribunal system and lost his licence, so is now unable to operate in Bolton. But, like me, the girl’s parents were horrified to learn that although the driver is banned in Bolton, he could become a taxi driver anywhere else, depending on whether another local authority did a police check. Because he was not prosecuted, a police check might not throw up the fact that he was a danger to the travelling public and, it would appear, to young women in particular.
I asked the Department for Transport a written question about the proportion of local authorities in England and Wales that require a disclosure and barring service check on applicants before issuing a taxi or private hire vehicle licence, and I received this response:
“The Department for Transport does not hold this information. Local authorities are under a statutory duty to ensure that any person to whom they grant a taxi or private hire vehicle driver’s licence is a ‘fit and proper person’. As part of this process they can undertake”—
note the word “can”—
“criminal record checks on applicants but we do not keep details of the assessment policies and procedures adopted by local authorities.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 522W.]
That “can” seems totally inadequate.
I have asked questions about whether all local authorities carry out police checks, but as no one holds the information, we do not know the answer. That is another reason why we need holistic legislation that ensures that licensing authorities carry out proper checks on drivers. We need a system in which a person who is banned by one local authority is banned, full stop. The changes proposed in the Bill will make the situation worse, not better.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Does she accept that that principle applies not only to the licensee but to the condition of the vehicle? We have varying licensing conditions for vehicles themselves. Some authorities might argue that other authorities license vehicles that they would deem to be substandard because they have a higher threshold. Does she accept that the age and condition of the vehicle is also of paramount importance to local people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When a vehicle can be licensed in one authority and the driver in another, and both can operate somewhere else, we have a ridiculous situation in which nobody can enforce standards because the vehicle will never be driven in the authority where either licence was granted. He is absolutely right that we have no equality of standards across the piece. It is a ludicrous situation, and it is ludicrous that the Government intend to deregulate further. It makes no sense whatsoever.
I wrote to the Secretary of State about my 13-year-old constituent. In response, I was told that legislation obliges a local authority to satisfy itself that any person to whom it grants a taxi or public service vehicle licence is a fit and proper person to hold such a licence, but “fit and proper” is not defined in legislation and it therefore falls to the local authority to decide. Why do the Government think that further deregulation will keep my constituents safe?
When I first read the clause that allows family members to drive an off-duty taxi or private hire vehicle, I could see no problems with it and thought it seemed a sensible idea. I asked the operators and others involved about that when we met. I was not wholly convinced by the answer and so asked whether the taxi markings could be removed. I was told that that would be extremely difficult for taxis operating in my local authority—I guess this would be the case for all taxis operating outside London—because they are clearly marked as taxis. Another issue that was raised was what would happen in areas where taxis are allowed to use bus lanes. What would happen if an off-duty taxi used a bus lane? How would we enforce proper usage? I was then convinced by their arguments.
As we talked through those matters, I realised that in all our areas we already have a massive problem with unlicensed taxis touting for business, particularly late at night. I am no longer often in city centres late at night, but I have been in the past. It has to be said that one can become quite desperate when looking for a taxi. In particular, young people who have perhaps been drinking more than they should will not be rigorous about checking the identity of the driver or the car; they are simply delighted to be getting a lift home. We should not introduce any measures that weaken regulation and make it more likely that people will get into a vehicle that is not being driven by the licensed driver.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument, and one that I think the general public will have a lot of sympathy with. Does she agree that there are also implications for police enforcement? In my area, taxi drivers are sometimes drug couriers, and the police find them. If we are going to deregulate who can drive the vehicle, the question of who is the mule—is it the driver or the person taking the car?—is a serious problem for police enforcement. Who is driving that vehicle? Who is the person who last had it?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point yet again. I absolutely agree that we need clarity on who is the driver of the vehicle, particularly one that is marked as a taxi, and what the vehicle is involved in, whether it be legitimate or illegitimate trade.
All the people who came to the initial meeting—drivers, trade union representatives, operators and enforcers—said that nobody in the industry was calling for the right for family members to be able to drive the cars. They are all happy with the current situation, because they understand how it protects them, their family and their trade when their vehicle is used for business, not pleasure. I find it difficult to understand where the proposal came from, because the trade is not calling for it. It might be very generous of the Minister to say, “A driver won’t have to have a second car because his wife can drive his”, but they do not want that.
There are real problems with the current system. I wholeheartedly ask the Minister seriously to consider removing these nonsensical provisions from the Bill, to make sure that we have holistic legislation based on the Law Commission report, and to support our amendment. We need a national register of drivers. We need national standards for drivers and vehicle operators before we ever allow them to sub-contract. We need robust licensing policies in all licensing authorities. We need a clear duty and method for local authorities to share data with the police and other local authorities. We need the local authority where taxis are operating to be able to undertake checks and enforcement wherever the driver or the vehicle is registered, and for the enforcement body to be recompensed for that enforcement.
The Government should, as soon as possible, initiate a proper national system for taxis and private hire vehicles. That would be welcomed by the profession and by everybody involved in it, including licensing bodies, local authorities, and, most importantly—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention because it allows me to reiterate what I said. Yes, the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Operators has called for a more rigorous policy. It welcomed the Law Commission report and the notion of holistic legislation that could introduce some of the things the Government want but also created a robust system to ensure that we do not have rogue operators, rogue drivers, or people who are a risk to the travelling public.
I call on the Government to introduce holistic legislation and to remove these three piecemeal and ridiculous clauses from the Bill to ensure that the travelling public are safe and not put more at risk.
I urge the House to support amendments 61 and 1, and to reject clause 35. I will not rehearse the strong arguments comprehensively and ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) about the safety of seafarers.
I want to say a few words about the Government’s proposals on taxi deregulation. In April, I held a Westminster Hall debate on their proposed reforms to the legislation on taxis, private hire vehicles and hackney carriages. Incredibly, there was near-unanimous support across the Chamber, even from Government Members who seemed to agree that the reforms were poorly drafted, rushed, and involved risk and unintended consequences. Taxis and private hire vehicles form an essential part of our national transport system. Indeed, for many of our elderly and disabled constituents, they are often the only form of public transport; that applies particularly to those of us who represent rural or semi-rural areas. I fear that in the rush to deregulate, changes are being proposed that may well endanger public safety.
Those concerns are being expressed not only by me and by other Labour MPs but by, among others, Unite, my union; the RMT; the GMB, which represents thousands of drivers of private hire and hackney vehicles all over the country; the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers; the Local Government Association; and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. I have met all those bodies, or they have been in contact with my office to express their worries about the nature and implications of these proposals for the deregulation of private hire vehicles.
Opposition Members have expressed a particular concern about clause 10, which will enable people who do not hold a private hire vehicle licence to drive that vehicle when off duty. The reform will surely lead to an increase in the number of unlicensed drivers posing as legitimate drivers, if there is very little that policing or licensing authorities can do, in practice, to identify bogus drivers.
Following the Westminster Hall debate, I conducted a consultation exercise with taxi and private hire vehicle drivers in my constituency. One of my findings was that passengers very rarely, if ever, ask drivers to show their licence badge. Drivers made it clear that they felt that the operation of unlicensed taxis in their area risked damaging the reputation of, and confidence in, the firms they worked for.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the concerns voiced by some 19 police and crime commissioners around the country, including mine, Ron Hogg, the police and crime commissioner for County Durham and Darlington. His view is that an inevitable consequence of this deregulation will be an increase in the number of people attacked after a night out.
For the sake of the record, I want to make the Minister aware of police figures showing that, in London alone, 214 women were sexually assaulted last year after getting into an illegal minicab or an unlicensed taxi, and 54 were raped. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, a leading independent women’s safety charity, shares my concerns. It has said that clause 10
“will provide greater opportunity for those intent on preying on women in this way.”
None of us wants our constituents to be put at risk—I do not believe that the Minister does, either—but passenger safety and public confidence in the taxi and private hire vehicle industry should not be undermined by the Government’s mad dash to deregulate.
There are concerns about clause 11, which will set standard durations of three years for taxi and private hire vehicle driver licences, and of five years for private hire vehicle operator licences. The industry and trade unions expressed concerns on that point during the limited time available for the consultation. The National Private Hire Association and the Institute of Licensing have said that the clause will remove flexibility from councils, and there are already concerns about how effectively drivers are scrutinised.
Although local authorities impose licence conditions on private hire vehicle drivers and operators that require them to report criminal convictions and changes to their medical status within a specified period, in practice such conditions are often ignored. Even in the case of driver licences, although the police are supposed to inform the local authority of any recordable convictions—indeed, the police have the discretion to inform the local authority of minor matters—information is often given haphazardly.
Some local authorities get information directly from their local police force, but—for the Minister, it is a big but—in very few instances do local authorities receive information from police forces outside their area. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who is sitting alongside me, made that very point. It is important, because one of the Bill’s provisions will allow subcontracting, so a taxi or private hire firm might come from another area and be covered by a different police force.
I remind the House that effective implementation will require local authorities to sign up to the disclosure and barring service in order to receive information about convictions during the term of a licence. The Minister has said that he does not see any problem, but the service is relatively new, and how it will work in practice is not yet known. We know that local authorities have inadequate control over, or powers for, effective policing or enforcement, so how will the extension of cross-border work that the provision will bring in be properly licensed and controlled? The lack of confidence in clause 11 is further evidence, I believe, of the rushed and piecemeal nature of the reforms.
One of my principal concerns relates to the Government proposal to allow private hire vehicles to subcontract and book an operator in a different licensing area. When I re-read in Hansard the Minister’s response in the Westminster Hall debate, and indeed on Second Reading and in Committee, I saw that he said that the change would give customers more choice—that was part of his justification—and that it might be advantageous, in that passengers could ring up their local provider if they did not know who to call. However, passengers may well not want to use the subcontractor that has been sent to their door. At the moment, they have some degree of control over that.
Quality is an issue, and in some cases, the name of a company is important—a Government Member raised that point during the Minister’s opening statement. People may book on that basis, and may choose not to book others on the same basis. A customer might choose a local operator because of their local knowledge, because they like those particular drivers and feel comfortable with them, or because they have experienced problems with another operator. A member of the public might call a specific operator because they feel that they are reliable and safe to travel with. I am thinking specifically about women travelling home. They might not be travelling back from a night out; they might be nurses or home care workers travelling back from employment. They might have a preferred operator because they know they will be transported safely. A disabled passenger might know their preferred provider to be competent in assisting disabled passengers, and they may have confidence and comfort in the knowledge that a particular provider will take them home safely.
My consultation found that drivers appreciated those concerns, and as a consequence, were overwhelmingly opposed to the reforms. Particularly in relation to subcontracting, there is a risk in passing jobs from one company to another. It is not the wonderful panacea that some advocates of deregulation, such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), who is no longer in his place, would have us believe. The House really should think about some of the consequences, including the unintended consequences, of the proposals.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. People might be expecting a vehicle that is perhaps five years old at most, and that has been crash-tested for safety, from an operator they are familiar with and a local authority that has a very robust licensing system; but the vehicle that turns up may be from another authority, or could even have been licensed in the far ends of the United Kingdom. It could have no age restrictions on it, and be poorly MOT-tested, or its tests may not have been as frequent as they would have been under the local authority. The vehicle may not be as robust or as sound—it is only as good as it was on the date on which it got its MOT—as a vehicle that their local authority would permit. People could end up with a vehicle that is unsatisfactory, compared with what they would expect in their local authority area, because of the cross-border taxi proposal.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes a very sensible point. Apart from choice and preference, and whether a cab or a private hire vehicle is adapted for the disabled, there are also issues about levels of maintenance, and different standards in different local authority areas.
On the Opposition side of the House, and on my part, there is agreement about the need for reform of the industry. However, there is consensus across the trade that this piecemeal approach is not what is needed. What is different since the Westminster Hall debate a couple of months ago is that the Law Commission has now reported. In his opening statement, the Minister said that the Law Commission agrees with clauses 10 to 12; well, that is not quite the whole truth, is it? What the Law Commission has advocated—and for the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government are not following through on this—is a comprehensive review to get rid of the inconsistency in standards across the country that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and others identified, and to deal with the concerns about inadequate enforcement. The idea that we can cherry-pick three proposals for deregulation and that there will be no consequences flies in the face of what the Law Commission is about, and seems rather contrary.
As my hon. Friends have indicated, the Law Commission’s July 2013 interim statement said that if reforms were to be implemented, they must be underpinned by tougher powers for licensing officers. I do not see why the proposed reforms are so urgent that the Government should bypass meaningful consultation; in doing so, they are undermining the work of the Law Commission that they initiated.
We must have a holistic approach; changes to regulation should be considered in the context of the legislation as a whole, rather than in a piecemeal fashion. Failure to do so not only disregards the trade and other stakeholders, but may put passenger safety at risk. The reforms look set to endanger the travelling public and ignore stakeholders. I do not believe that they are fit for purpose, and they should be removed from the Bill.
I rise to reinforce some of the arguments that hon. Members have made about amendment 61, to which I have added my name. Many people in my constituency have raised this issue with me, and there is real concern about public safety. Nothing that I have heard from the Government this afternoon has put my mind—or, I am sure, my constituents’ minds—at rest.
Taxi companies in my constituency have also raised concerns. I come back to a theme to which other hon. Members have returned time and again: nobody really knows what is driving these measures. People are not asking for them; on the contrary, organisations that are watching the proposals are sounding the alarm. They include the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which we should surely listen to closely. Given that no counter-argument is coming from other organisations to balance the discussion, it strikes me as incredibly perverse for the Government to push ahead with these measures and fly in the face of so much advice suggesting that there are dangers involved.
I was particularly moved to hear the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) again tell the House the story of her 13-year-old constituent—she raised that topic in the Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) a few weeks ago. It was horrifying to hear that story then, just as it was today. The bottom line is that people with disabilities, young women, those worried about how they will get home at night, and those without access to a car will be watching for the implications of clauses 10 to 12, and they are worried about them.
Brighton and Hove has 1,800 drivers who serve our city well. Many of them have said that they are worried about the Government’s attempts to rush through changes to the regulations, and that the measures will be bad for the travelling public and the city, and potentially dangerous. The Government proposals seem rushed and are another example of unthinking, anti-regulation, small-state ideology that has no basis in evidence or common sense and, as has been said, risks putting public safety at risk.
We have had nothing close to meaningful consultation, and the Government even failed to discuss these changes with councils before tabling the clauses. The Local Government Association put it politely, but states clearly:
“We are disappointed that the LGA was not made aware of these proposed clauses until they were brought before the Deregulation Bill Committee.”
Where is the speed coming from? Why do we have to pre-empt other processes to get these measures into statute so fast?
There is concern that the proposals could lead to women being put at risk of assault or attack by unlicensed and unregulated drivers when they travel late at night. The deregulation of the taxi industry could also lead to rogue taxi drivers, criminals posing as drivers, passengers being ripped off, and people being unsure whether the taxi they have flagged down is legitimate.
Ministers should surely follow the 2011 proposals of experts on the cross-party Select Committee on Transport, who advised the Government to listen to users—particularly those in vulnerable groups—those in the trade, and local authorities, and to keep the situation simple and local. Instead, clauses 10 to 12 show a systematic attempt to water down standards and rules that were designed to serve and protect the public.
I come back to the sense that this is being driven by—I do not know: is it being driven by ideology or something else? During the debate of the hon. Member for Easington in Westminster Hall, I just observed that the boss of the minicab giant Addison Lee had made an individual donation of £500,000 to the Conservatives last year—it was reported as the third largest donation in the three months to the end of September. Government Members immediately started jumping up to point out that Addison Lee does not currently operate outside London and so has no particular interest. However, Addison Lee is on record as saying that it would very much like to operate outside London. I will leave it there; I simply say that when we are searching for a reason to understand why the Government are pursuing this policy, one cannot help but notice that there has been a very large donation from Addison Lee.
I convene the RMT group in Parliament. I raised these issues at the RMT conference this morning and we had a discussion about their implications.
On the taxi and minicab issue, the RMT represents only the black cabs in London, which has been prayed in aid as operating the system that will now be rolled out elsewhere. I want to dissuade the Minister from the view that the RMT is happy with the regime in London at the moment. In fact, in the RMT’s view, there should be further regulation, with annual testing. The figures have already been given for assaults and rapes, which are occurring even in the capital city’s regulated regime.
What worries me is exactly what others have said. From the point of view of the union and a number of other organisations that have been cited, everyone thought that we were on a journey over the last couple of years: the Law Commission would conduct its investigation and review; there would be adequate consultation; a comprehensive Bill would be produced; and then we would establish a regime that, although perhaps not everyone would be happy with it, would at least be nationally comprehensive, effective, properly enforced and readily understandable. There is therefore a lack of comprehension of why the measures have been introduced in such haste. In fact, I am led to believe that one of the informal consultations on some of the legislation lasted only 10 days and was conducted by e-mail.
There may well be some association between donations, speed and amendments, but to be frank, what concerns me most is getting the legislation right, and I just do not think that the measure will prove effective. I think it will cause more problems than it is worth. I also think it will prove deeply unpopular as it is rolled out. If there is a lack of safety, particularly for women, the Government will reap the whirlwind. They will face a backlash, because what they are doing flies in the face of all the expert evidence that has been presented. Everyone who practises on the ground, right across the country, is saying that this is not the way to go about it, so I caution the Government: they are making a mistake today and may well want to think again before the day is out.
On marine investigations, again, people are slightly bewildered about why the measure is included in this Bill. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), who sits on the Front Bench, for taking us through the history and in particular the Derbyshire incident. I, too, want to go back to that incident, because I find it extraordinary. I remember the campaign about the Derbyshire and I remember that key period when a number of the unions and others were raising the problems with that type of ship. From 1975 to 1997, nearly 400 of them went down and we lost something like 1,300 seafarers. The Derbyshire was one of those ships. There was an issue with design and safety.
At the time, there were all sorts of insinuations about it being the crew’s fault. The RMT undertook its own investigation, along with Nautilus and the International Transport Workers Federation, as my hon. Friend said. They found the ship and discovered the real causes. However, the investigation would not have been reopened but for a piece of legislation introduced in 1995 by—who? By a Conservative Government. Until then, the system was not satisfactory. The Derbyshire relatives, the unions and others had to campaign because reopening an inquiry was left to the whim of a Minister. That was unsatisfactory. A Conservative Government thus changed the legislation to provide for an automatic reopening of an inquiry when new evidence was found.
We have heard the argument that inquiries should not be reopened on the basis of slight or insubstantial evidence. None has reopened in that way. No inquiries have resulted from people coming forward with evidence relating to a ship sunk a century ago and demanding an inquiry. What people want is the confidence they never had before the Conservative Government introduced the legislation: that when new information becomes available, an inquiry will automatically be reopened.
The people most affected—the relatives—have an important role to play. The point was made about closure. The Derbyshire relatives wanted to know what happened to the 42 seafarers and the two wives who went down. Until they knew, there would always be allegations, there would always be uncertainty. They just wanted to know what happened to their relatives. At least the legislation gave them some potential for closure.
I can understand why, if we are scrutinising legislation, we might want to remove elements of regulations that are no longer needed and no longer effective, but everyone in the sector and everyone who represents seafarers is saying that these regulations are desperately needed, because they provide confidence and security to the families in the whole sector and to seafarers themselves that when an incident has occurred and new information has come to light, there will automatically be an investigation. It will not be left to the discretion of an individual Minister and decided on a whim.
I asked the Minister in an intervention what would happen if the Government went ahead with this and what would be contained in the detail of the regulations, but I have yet to hear a response. I hope the Minister will respond in detail later. I would like to see something along the lines of amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South. That would at least provide some protection for the involvement of interested parties, particularly the relatives. It would also give some commitment that, if information emerges from which we might learn lessons regarding the future safety of seafarers, that should be a relevant factor in the considerations.
I hope that this legislation does not go through tonight, but if it does, I urge that a proper and detailed consultation be held with all those in the seafaring industry and all those who work in the maritime sector, so that the regulations can be considered in detail. We need to learn the lessons not just from the Derbyshire but from other cases and from those who have been involved in the campaigns.
Let me repeat that the current regulations came from Conservative legislation, which I supported at the time and helped to campaign for outside this place. I simply cannot understand why the Conservative party is stepping back tonight from what has proved to be an effective piece of legislation that was implemented on a cross-party and consensual basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South mentioned the role of Lord Prescott in ensuring that the inquiry was reopened; he used the legislation that the Conservative Government had introduced. I ask Members to think again before approving this measure, which has a significance beyond a deregulation Bill; it drives to the heart of our maritime industry and to the protection of seafarers as they risk their lives on behalf of our economy.
We have heard a series of excellent speeches from my hon. Friends, which I think have comprehensively demolished the Government position on just about every front. I do not wish to repeat the fine arguments made by my hon. Friends and other Members on the Opposition Benches; rather, I shall say a few words about perhaps the lightest of the relevant issues—parking and parking enforcement.
I do not believe anyone has spoken up today for those most affected by parking. Those who watched the news reports last night no doubt saw some drivers, typically male drivers, saying, “We don’t want too much parking regulation. We’d like a bit less regulation and a bit more freedom.” It was all a bit “Jack the Lad”. On the other hand, we heard a middle-aged woman saying, “I want to see the parking laws enforced properly, because we do not want to be affected by it, and if people break the law they should face the penalties of the law.” I strongly agree with her.
I am sure we have all had postbags bulging with complaints about parking problems, and it is nearly always from people who have been abused by people who have parked irregularly. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) kept confusing the rules on parking and where people can park with the enforcement of those rules. We are talking about enforcement. If rules are not enforced, it means that people are getting away with breaking the law.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to challenge those rules, that is fine, but we are talking about the enforcement of the rules that exist. To most people, I think, the rules are probably reasonable, but the enforcement sometimes falls down, and I think that using CCTV to enforce those rules is absolutely right. I do not want the rules to be weakened, and I do not want the enforcement to be weakened. I want to help people who are affected badly by parking. For example, people park across my neighbour’s driveway when football matches are on. It is completely unacceptable that he should be blocked into or out of the driveway by other people parking across it; that is simply not on.
These problems may not be as important as the investigation of accidents at sea, or the potential dangers involved in the licensing of private hire vehicles, but they do affect people and people are concerned about them. I want strong enforcement of the parking rules to continue. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham said, we may sometimes challenge the way in which the rules operate, but they should be enforced none the less.
I entirely agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) about the need for a national register. There is no reason why we should not have one. We have automatic number plate recognition on a national basis. It ought to be very easy for the police to find out quickly who someone is and what his or her car is by means of an electronic register.
I also agree with what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said about the Bill. I was a member of the Joint Committee that subjected it to pre-legislative scrutiny. I thought then that it was driven by dogma, and I still think that. The Government want to say “We are the great deregulating Government,” so they must introduce deregulation Bills, but I am a regulator: I want more regulation in certain circumstances; I want life to be made more civilised; I want ordinary people to be protected by regulation. I do not want freedom for people who will make life miserable for other people, and that may mean more regulation. I am a re-regulator, not a deregulator. I shall certainly vote against the Bill tonight, not just because it is dogmatic, but because of what is in it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will not get on to the subject of the banks, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you would stop me if I did, but I think that they are too unregulated now. We have banks in public ownership which are still not behaving themselves because they are not sufficiently regulated.
My hon. Friend is right. I think that we are now recognising the mistakes of the past and, perhaps, seeing the supertanker beginning to turn. I want it to turn much faster, and move towards the more civilised society that we had before the deregulatory society that we have seen for the last 20 or 30 years.
I think that I have made my point. I think that the Bill is dogmatic, and that bits of deregulation have been put in to give it some kind of meaning. I think that the Government are profoundly mistaken. The speeches made by Opposition Members have demolished the Government’s arguments, and I look forward to seeing the Government defeated in the Lobbies.
I want to speak about the Government measures on the deregulation of taxi licensing. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made a valuable point when he said the light-touch approach is not necessarily the best one. In this case, certainly, while we have the localisation of taxi licensing, we can see a plethora of problems in taxi licensing that will not be resolved and, indeed, will be made considerably worse by the measures. They could do a lot of damage to taxi licensing and the respect taxi drivers have in the taxi licensing industry if quality and standards for the fare-paying passenger start to erode. I will therefore vote against these amendments tonight if a Division is called, and I want to explain why I cannot support them.
On the issue of non-drivers being able to drive cars, I mentioned earlier one concern that I have in Lancashire. We work with Lancashire police and we get taxi drivers who are involved in criminal activity—fortunately not many, but a significant number none the less. The police work with the local authority to deal with criminality through taxi licensing. Occasionally taxis are used for couriering drugs around. The police have a difficult job trying to determine who was responsible for the drugs in a particular vehicle, and that will be made more difficult when there are other drivers of a vehicle in which the police find drugs or other illegal items. Having various individuals driving a particular vehicle may throw considerable doubt on such matters. My constituents would expect me to raise the point as to the need to be clear about who is driving a vehicle, who is in a taxi, and who is licensed to drive that taxi, and where.
All these things are crucial, because, certainly in my area, if we are to have a taxi industry that the public respect, we need a taxi policy the public have confidence in, and I do not think the public will have confidence in a taxi policy that opens the door to criminality. For my constituents, there is no worse form of criminality than the transportation of drugs in taxis. I must emphasise that this does not happen frequently, but when it does happen—and it does happen—it is worrying. Not knowing who is driving a vehicle is therefore of some concern.
As I have said, having non-drivers, so to speak, driving taxis is certainly of concern to my local constabulary, and I am sure there are many other reasons why people will feel uneasy about that, too, not least the issues mentioned to do with the abuse of taxis—having the plates on the sides of taxis and non-drivers driving in bus lanes and so forth—or having rogue drivers in those taxis thinking they can take a chance and pick up a fare even though they are not a licensed taxi driver. There is a host of issues around individuals who are not licensed to drive taxis but who may drive the vehicle as a taxi where the plate is on the side and they think they can get away with it.
I have grave concerns about the three and five-year licences, primarily because it will remove local authority control. Situations may also arise where people on three and five-year licences may have been involved in issues that would have led to a suspension in one area where the licence applies but it has not done so and they carry on operating with the licence in other areas, and they do not have to appear before the committee for a fresh licence. It is worrying that it may be accepted and a given that they carry on with that licence. We are trying to raise the standards of taxi operators, taxi licences and taxi vehicles, and this erodes that. The fact that taxi drivers will not be compelled to come back before the local authority licensing committee regularly will open the system up to those who would take advantage of the longevity of their licence to carry on plying their trade, albeit legally in the authority that they licence from, but perhaps not up to the standard of the local authority in which they are operating.
The third and final issue I wish to discuss is subcontracting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington said, people might phone through to their favourite operator whom they know and trust, and that operator could subcontract to another licensed firm in another local authority area, and a vehicle that they are unfamiliar with or unsure of could arrive at their door. That raises all sorts of issues. Is it possible, as was asked, to turn that taxi away, or does it have to be accepted? Most people would probably assume that it was a taxi from the company they had phoned, and would get in it.
Hyndburn wants a local authority taxi licensing policy that reassures the public that the taxis are of a good standard, that that standard is properly, professionally and regularly maintained by the local authority, and that the taxi drivers are reputable and meet a standard determined by local people through localism and the local authority. Other authorities might adopt standards that are a little bit lower—or in some cases, a lot lower—and perhaps the people of Hyndburn do not wish to have such taxis on their roads. However, this provision will simply allow those taxis to turn up, because the job is subcontracted to another local authority, and the paying passenger might be none the wiser or might simply feel obliged to take the taxi.
There is some variation in taxi licensing across the United Kingdom. One local authority not far from me was licensing taxis in Aberdeen. Anybody who knows my constituency knows that it is in the centre of the United Kingdom, in the north of England, so it is rather ridiculous that that local authority is licensing taxis in Scotland. I do not think that a taxi driver from Scotland would ply his trade in that area. Essentially, there is a race to the bottom.
What is aggravating the situation is that local authorities’ revenues have been taken away by the Government’s austerity cuts, and they are chasing revenue. Local authorities therefore see taxi operators as a means to an income, which means that they want to increase the age threshold of the vehicles and relax the inspection regime. We are talking about consumers of local authority services in what is a marketplace, so a race to the bottom in taxi licensing is taking place. Local authorities near me have raised the age threshold for vehicles considerably and reduced inspections, allowing them to take place in the private sector, which gives rise to questions about whether the inspection process is robust enough. There is deep concern about the age of such vehicles. My local authority frequently carries out MOT tests on vehicles, and that testing must be done through the local authority MOT testing station. We have a very high standard, and the age limit for such vehicles is seven years. I doubt whether my constituents want 20-year-old charabancs with 400,000 miles on the clock turning up, driven by someone with a five-year licence who may have a conviction for violent assault or carrying drugs, and who can ply his trade in Hyndburn simply because he is licensed from another authority.
This provision will make the situation far worse because the customer will not be in control. They will phone up their local, trusted company, but the job will be subcontracted to a local authority in which the standards may not be as high, or far lower, and where the licensing conditions may be far more relaxed. The driver who turns up may well be a sex offender, or have some sort of criminal record. The vehicle may well be 20 years old, with many thousands of miles on the clock, and it might have been tested at an MOT station where the methods are not quite as robust or reliable. Of course, a vehicle’s MOT test is only as valid as the day of the test and not the day after, so if we do not have regular MOTs or other inspections, a vehicle’s condition cannot be as guaranteed as that of others where there is a more robust testing regime. This comes back to the issue of choice; the customer is not in control. The customer will phone their favourite taxi firm and the taxi will roll up from a taxi firm operating in a local authority area with poorer standards, so what will we get? We will get poorer conditions. The fare-paying public will not appreciate the proposal being put forward in their name because it devalues the service they receive.
I am concerned that this provision is being introduced without any support, apart from among those on the Government Benches—although I sometimes doubt whether it has any support there, because it does not make sense to anyone who is aware of the taxi industry. A wider discussion needs to take place. The Law Commission is looking into taxi licensing issues that go beyond those in the three provisions today, yet the Government have sought to bring forward these proposals ahead of the Law Commission’s findings. That seems bizarre, if not perverse or daft. We should have waited for the Law Commission to report because a restructuring of taxi licensing needs to take place. The Law Commission’s input would have been valid and we would have sought to iron out not only the problems the Government are exacerbating today, but some of the others that exist in taxi licensing. So, with deep concern, I will be unable to support the proposals on taxi licensing. The Government have got real problems with them, and they will have to examine them again and repeal them, because they are in danger of presenting the paying public with drivers and vehicles they are not happy with. This is not the public’s choice and they are being put in a very vulnerable position. People will be upset to realise that the Government are not on their side, seem to be on the side of the taxi operators and are, in essence, bringing a danger or a threat to the customer’s door.
Let me make one further point. We talk about taxis, but we should not forget to mention things such as minibuses and the importance of crash safety test standards. We can talk about minibuses on motorways taking school kids, but let us up the ante a bit. It really does matter that the right operator—the trusted one—turns up at the door. Let us suppose that 12 school kids are in a minibus where the seats have not been welded in to a crash safety test standard. Let us suppose that they are whizzing down the motorway and are suddenly involved in an accident. Let us suppose that the favourite operator, which would normally have taken those children, has proper welded-in seats in a proper crash safety tested minibus. In such circumstances, lives could have been saved, and the Government will look at this legislation and think that they have made a terrible mistake by sublicensing to other areas. Such a tragedy would cost lives in order for us to arrive at a sensible point, which is why the Government ought to row back from the position they are in.
First, I wish to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), who is not in his place. He started by discussing CCTV exemptions, which he wanted included in the Bill. I made it clear in my opening remarks precisely what the exemptions were, but to avoid doubt I will simply repeat them. CCTV cameras can still be used in relation to restricted areas outside a school; red routes or clearways; bus lanes, where parking is prohibited; and cases where a vehicle is stopped at a restricted bus stop or stand. That is very clear.
The Minister has indicated where he intends exemptions to be made, but he has not answered the questions my hon. Friend put to him. Where will those exemptions be listed? Where will they be codified? Under what regulations will they be introduced? When will those regulations be laid?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I am sure we will shortly provide the clarity he seeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) raised the issue of CCTV and parking, and asked when we would introduce regulations and commence the provision. Clearly we will do that as soon as is practicable after Royal Assent. He also suggested that we could restrict CCTV use through statutory guidance. There is a need to legislate; the difficulty at the moment is that local authorities are not supposed to use CCTV other than in exceptional circumstances, but its use is proliferating. We need to respond to that because CCTV is now being used routinely.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South, like other Opposition Members, made a number of comments about how we are putting passengers at risk and how that risk could be greatly increased, but they did not illustrate that with any examples. He attacked me for using London as an example—I believe he said I was praying it in aid—but London does have rather a big private hire vehicle market and so everything that he says is going transpire as a result of the measures we are introducing would have already happened in London. The evidence shows that it has not.
Clearly it concerns me, the Government and the whole House. The issue is that the hon. Gentleman seems to be linking those very serious cases and what the Government are proposing without actually producing any evidence to suggest that there is a link between the two.
I am going to make a bit more progress. The hon. Member for Blackpool South called on the Government to have a more comprehensive look at this issue, but the Bill provides an opportunity to introduce the three measures which, as he will have heard me say, the Law Commission supports. We are introducing those three measures. He will know, as will other Opposition Members, that Bills, unlike buses, do not come along in threes; Bills come forward relatively infrequently and if there is an opportunity to take small steps in relation to taxis, we should take them.
I will address that shortly. The hon. Gentleman attempted a joke at the Government’s expense about whether the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport had spoken about these matters. The consultation was issued jointly in December by both Departments, and the announcements that Members will have seen in the press at the weekend were supported by both Secretaries of State and both Departments. Clearly, Departments are working hand in hand on this issue, as they should be.
The hon. Gentleman has stated that we did not listen to the Law Commission, but it supports the three measures. He, like a number of Members, asked about enforcement, which will be dealt with in the usual way. For example, where journey bookings are subcontracted across licensing boundaries the operator that takes the initial booking will retain liability and licensing authorities can investigate any issues in the usual way, so local authorities retain their licensing duties.
The Minister rightly says that the licence will be administered by the local authority, but the vehicle that turns up at the door may well not be licensed by the local authority, and neither may the driver. The operator might be, but the driver and the vehicle may well not be licensed by the local authority where the original booking is made.
I will come to that matter shortly in response to another intervention, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with my answer.
Moving on to the issue of marine safety, the hon. Member for Blackpool South suggested that I had used a bad example when I referred to something that had happened 100 years ago, although I think that he, or someone from his party, went on to do the same. The issue is that, under his suggested amendment, if a wreck were discovered 100 years from now, regardless of whether it represented substantial new information or had any impact on an investigation, there would be an automatic reopening of an inquiry. That is something for which we want to provide flexibility.
The hon. Gentleman said that Ministers must have flexibility to reopen inquiries, and that is exactly what we are trying to achieve. We are giving the Secretary of State the flexibility to reopen an inquiry. However, there is no flexibility in relation to miscarriages of justices, for which an inquiry will have to be formally reopened.
I am afraid that my advice says that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment widens the remit rather than closing it down. Perhaps he should go back and look at precisely what he is proposing. It is clear that the Secretary of State will still be required to reopen a formal investigation where there are grounds for suspecting a miscarriage of justice. It is also worth pointing out that what we are talking about has no impact on the work of the marine accident investigation branch; that is completely separate to this issue.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) asked whether there would be regulations for marine investigations. The answer is no, there would not be regulations. That is something that would be implemented. We have set out the circumstances in which we would expect the Secretary of State formally to reopen an inquiry. We would of course consider any specific requests that were received from relatives or trade unions that were affected by that decision-making process. The measure would come into force two months after Royal Assent.
The Minister should recognise that he is now taking the law back to what it was when it was completely ineffective. The Conservative Government had to amend the legislation, and the Derbyshire relatives had to campaign for 20 years to ensure that they got justice.
The reason why the Conservative Government introduced the legislation was that the decision was at the discretion of the Minister. This measure returns it to the discretion of a Minister—it does not matter which party is in power—in whom the public no longer have confidence.
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in relation to miscarriages of justice, there is no flexibility. There will be an automatic reopening of the inquiry. I hope that he agrees that there must be some assessment of whether or not new evidence should trigger a formal reopening of an inquiry. Surely the evidence must pertain to the incident. It has to be of a nature that is likely to lead to safety improvements.
That is precisely why I support the amendment. However, if the amendment is not suitably drafted, the usual process is that Government consult on the detail of regulation. People will be involved in that, and we can hopefully arrive at a consensus. Today the Minister is saying that there will be no regulation that will guide Minister and therefore no consultation. We are back where we were before 1995.
I am repeating myself rather a lot, but I say again that we are not back where we were. I have made it clear that, under our proposals, the MV Derbyshire inquiry would have happened.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) for his support. I was not quite as surprised as he thought I might be in receiving support from him. He expressed the view that the Government had not gone far enough in relation to deregulation. The Opposition saying that we have gone too far and my right hon. Friend saying that we have not gone far enough probably means that the Government have got it about right.
My right hon. Friend went on to highlight other problems with parking, with which we, as Members of Parliament, are all too familiar. I apologise if I have not been brave enough to venture into the other areas that he would like to discuss in relation to parking, but, first, I would be ruled out of order, and, secondly, we all know that when it comes to parking issues, it is a lose-lose situation whatever decision is taken.
Does the Minister agree that one concern of citizens is the use of fines to raise funds? I checked Magna Carta 1297, which for these deregulatory purposes can be found in the volume of statutes from 1235 to 1770, and it is clause 14 that is, in part, being reinstated by this Bill.
I did not know that Magna Carta touched on the matter of parking, but I am better informed as a result of my hon. Friend’s intervention.
Still on parking, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham touched on complicated parking signs and rules. Local authorities should ensure that signs are appropriate for parking restrictions. If they are not, drivers may complain to their council. If they receive a ticket, they have a free appeal to the local council and then a free appeal to the adjudicator if the council decides against them. I am sure that he is aware of that and will have referred many a constituent to the adjudicator in relation to disputes over parking tickets. The Government announced over the weekend that local residents and local firms will be able to demand a review of parking in their areas, including charges and the use of yellow lines.
We then had a contribution from the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) who described a distressing incident involving a young constituent of hers. I am sure that we all wish to convey our sympathy to her constituent for what was clearly a very traumatic incident. I do not know whether she has pursued with her local authority its participation in the disclosure and barring service, which may have been able to identify a problem with that particular driver. The hon. Lady went on to say that what we propose in this Bill will make matters worse. Again, I dispute that. We have had many comments from the Opposition saying that the Government will make matters worse, but they have offered little to substantiate those allegations.
The hon. Lady referred to the risk of the public using an unlicensed taxi. The measures to allow off-duty use of private hire vehicles relates not to taxis but to PHVs or mini cabs. In London no issues have been reported to the Department by Transport for London. As I have stated on a number of occasions, the Law Commission recommended this measure. In fact, it may go further as it calls for off-duty use of taxis, too.
Is it correct that a person who runs a licensed taxi company, for example, is responsible for everyone who drives for that company? If so, that person has the responsibility to ensure that his or her drivers act properly and are properly checked.
The Minister says that there has been no safety issue in London. What assessment has he made outside London of police stop checks of taxi vehicles in local authorities that have less regulation than others? We are all aware that in some local authorities a high proportion of taxis stopped by the police are in breach of roadworthiness rules, and those vehicles must be repaired. What assessment has he made of vehicles’ roadworthiness?
I personally have not made such an assessment, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, as a Member of Parliament, has regularly requested that sufficient enforcement action is taken and that suitable checks are made. I am sure that his local authority will want to pursue that actively and that the police and crime commissioner in his area will want to emphasise it as well. We expect those checks to be carried out now, irrespective of anything proposed in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) dwelt on subcontracting, as did other Members, and talked about what would happen if people used the local reliable firm that they knew and liked, but the job was passed on to another operator. At the moment, if someone wants to use their local reliable firm and it cannot fulfil that job, they are simply told to find another operator, so the risks that he tried to highlight in the job being passed on to another operator are already there when the reliable firm says, “Sorry, we can’t do that job for you. Go and look in the phone book to find another operator.” What we propose would allow that local reliable firm, which one would expect to want to set up a business relationship with another reliable, not local firm, to work with it in partnership to fulfil those jobs appropriately. Irrespective of these arrangements, all firms must be licensed. That is the basis on which their reliability is confirmed.
The Minister says that an individual who is unable to order a private hire vehicle from their favourite firm is in the same position if the company locates a private hire vehicle from another local authority. On many levels, that is wrong. When that individual flicks through the “Yellow Pages”, as the Minister describes it, they can choose to look for a company in their area. This proposal will allow the company to take charge, and that taxi could come from another area with different standards. The choice is therefore removed from the fare-paying customer. Does the Minister accept that the customer is in control when they look through the “Yellow Pages”, but not when the job is passed from one operator to another who locates a taxi from outside the area?
Yes, when people use “Yellow Pages”, they may well be in control of their choice of private hire firm, but I thought the point that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members were making was that there was a risk in a job being passed on by a local reliable firm to another operator. I would suggest that the risk of simply going to the phone book is much greater than using a local reliable firm whose reputation relies on delivering a good service, whether it does so directly or by subcontracting to another firm in an area where it cannot operate. With our system, security is enhanced, rather than damaged in the way he suggests.
The hon. Member for Easington referred to the need for a comprehensive, nationwide review and reform of private hire. He is probably well versed in private hire and taxi matters. He will understand how difficult it is to get a comprehensive, nationwide review of services. I suspect that there have been attempts under our Government and under Labour Governments to get that comprehensive review under way. It is not straightforward, and it is not something that happens overnight. We have an opportunity in the Bill to introduce some small measures, supported by the Law Commission. We have chosen, rightly, to proceed with them now, and that is the right action for the Government to take.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the disclosure and barring service. There is an automatic update system. It is an optional service for local authorities, which can judge whether to use it. Crucially, three-yearly licence renewal is seen as best practice. That applies in London and half of all authorities outside London.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. Although he uses London as the example where these changes are already in place, does he acknowledge that the enforcement regime is rather different because of the unique arrangement between the Metropolitan police and Transport for London? That arrangement is not replicated elsewhere in the country.
If, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that is an issue—clearly, several Members have raised it during the debate—it is a prime case for the police and crime commissioner to get involved in, to try to ensure consistency across their patch.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said that the Government have made no counter-argument in support of the proposals. Again, I simply refer her to the fact that the Law Commission supports our three proposals on taxis.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington called for a comprehensive Bill. Of course we want the Law Commission to deliver a comprehensive Bill, and nothing that we have done in relation to these measures stops it doing so. He referred to marine investigation and MV Derbyshire. I have taken quite a lot of interventions from him on that issue. I simply say again that the Government are clear that if such an incident happened again, under our proposals the case would definitely be reopened.
The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) wants parking laws enforced properly; well, so do I, and so do the Government. Local authorities will be able to enforce them properly by using traffic wardens, and nothing that we are doing will stop them doing so. I hope he will agree that, as I stated in my opening remarks, the issue is that local authorities have generated a surplus of £635 million by issuing parking tickets.
That depends on how local authorities respond. If they use traffic wardens, there is no reason why what the hon. Gentleman has suggested will happen. He suggested that a national register is needed. I do not know whether he has investigated that and can demonstrate that it would increase safety and what the associated price tag might be. Of course, the Bill is about deregulation, not, as he would like, more regulation.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) talked about our taxi policy opening the door to criminality, and I dispute that anything we are introducing would do so. He made that comment without backing it up with any evidence. He referred at some length to subcontracting, which we have dealt with. He wants taxis of a good standard; so do we, and that is what the licensing regime is for.
I think that I have dealt with all the points made, and I simply conclude my remarks by urging the Opposition not to press their amendments.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 4 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 25
Civil penalties for parking contraventions: enforcement
‘(1) Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 (civil enforcement of traffic contraventions) is amended as follows.
(2) After section 78 (notification of penalty charge) insert—
“78A Notification of penalty charge: parking contraventions in England
(1) Regulations under section 78 must include provision requiring notification of a penalty charge to be given by a notice affixed to the vehicle where the charge is in respect of a parking contravention on a road in a civil enforcement area in England.
(2) The regulations may, however, provide that the requirement does not apply in circumstances specified in the regulations (which may be framed by reference to the type of contravention, the circumstances in which a contravention occurs or in any other way) and, where the regulations so provide, they may make any such alternative provision for notification as is authorised by section 78.”
(3) After section 87 insert—
“87A Power to prohibit use of devices etc: parking contraventions in England
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision to prohibit the use by civil enforcement officers of a device of a description specified in the regulations, or of records produced by such a device, in connection with the enforcement of parking contraventions on a road in a civil enforcement area in England.
(2) The prohibition may be—
(a) general, or
(b) limited to particular uses specified in the regulations.
(3) The regulations may provide that a general or limited prohibition does not apply in circumstances specified in the regulations (which may be framed by reference to the type of contravention, the circumstances in which a contravention occurs or in any other way).
(4) Regulations under this section may amend this Part or any provision made under it.”’—(Tom Brake.)
This new clause deals with the enforcement of parking contraventions in England under Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004. It provides that, subject to certain exceptions, regulations under section 78 must provide for notification of a penalty charge to be given by a notice affixed to the vehicle (which means that a civil enforcement officer must be present to affix the notice). It also confers a power which would enable regulations to be made to restrict the use of CCTV or other devices in parking enforcement.
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 15
Footpaths: provisions to stop up or divert due to privacy, safety or security
‘(1) The Highways Act 1980 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 118 (Stopping up of footpaths, birdleways and restricted byways), in subsection (1) after “on the ground that it is not needed for public use”, insert “or the public need could reasonably be provided by an alternative public right of way or highway nearby”.
(3) After subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) When making a determination under subsection (1A) the council and Secretary of State shall have regard to the presumption that footpaths should not pass through farmyards, gardens, commercial premises or other land where privacy, safety or security are an issue.”.
(4) In section 119 (Diversion of footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways), subsection (6A) after “a public right of way,”, insert “, and the presumption that paths should not pass through farmyards, commercial areas, gardens or other land where privacy, safety or security is an issue.”’—(Bill Wiggin.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 17—Presumed diversion of intrusive public rights of way in limited circumstances—
‘In section 119 of the Highways Act 1980, after subsection (6A), insert—
“(6B) Where a path or way passes through the curtilage of a residential dwelling including the gardens and driveways of the premises, a working farmyard or forestry yard or other operational business or working industrial premises—
(a) subsections (6) and (6A) above shall not apply; and
(b) the Secretary of State or council shall confirm a public path diversion order unless he, or as the case may be, they are satisfied that the privacy, safety or security of the premises are not adversely affected by the existence or use of the path.
(6C) Where the premises have been unlawfully extended to encompass the path or way subsection (6B) above do not apply.
(6D) In exercising the powers under this section, the Secretary of State and the council shall have particular regard to the presumption that public rights of way or highways should not pass through the curtilage of residential premises including the gardens and driveways of the premises, a working farmyard or forestry yard or other operational business or working industrial premises.”’
This new Clause will facilitate statutory guidance to allow for the diversion of rights of way that pass through domestic or business premises on the grounds of privacy, safety or security.
New clause 18—Presumed extinguishment of intrusive public rights of way in limited circumstances—
‘In section 118 of the Highways Act 1980, after subsection (6), insert—
“(6A) Where a path or way passes through the curtilage of a residential dwelling including the gardens and driveways of the premises, a working farmyard or forestry yard or other operational business or working industrial premises a council shall make and the Secretary of State or the council shall confirm an order stopping up a path or way unless he, or as the case may be, they are satisfied that—
(a) the privacy, safety or security of the premises are not adversely affected by the existence or use of the path; or
(b) it is possible to divert the path or way such that the privacy, safety or security of the premises are not adversely affected by the existence or use of the path; or
(c) the path or way provides access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise reasonably accessible.
(6B) In exercising the powers under this section, the Secretary of State and the council shall have particular regard to the presumption that public rights of way or highways should not pass through the curtilage of residential premises including the gardens and driveways of the premises, a working farmyard or forestry yard or other operational business or working industrial premises.”’
This new Clause will facilitate statutory guidance to allow for the extinguishment of rights of way that pass through domestic or business premises on the grounds of privacy, safety or security if a diversion is not possible and the right of way does not provide access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise accessible.
New clause 19—Presumed extinguishment of intrusive byways open to all traffic in limited circumstances—
‘In section 116 of the Highways Act 1980, after subsection (1), insert—
“(1A) Where a byway open to all traffic passes through the curtilage of a residential dwelling including the gardens and driveways of the premises, a working farmyard or forestry yard or other operational business or working industrial premises it is presumed that diversion of the highway so that it does not so pass will make the path more commodious and that the highway is unnecessary unless the court is satisfied that—
(a) the privacy, safety or security of the premises are not adversely affected by the existence or use of the path; or
(b) the path or way provides access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise reasonably accessible.
(1B) In exercising the powers under this section, the authority and the court shall have particular regard to the presumption that a byway open to all traffic should not pass through the curtilage of residential premises including the gardens and driveways of the premises, a working farmyard or forestry yard or other operational business or working industrial premises.
(1C) A “byway open to all traffic” means a highway over which the public have a right of way for vehicular and all other kinds of traffic, but which is used mainly for the purposes for which footpaths and bridleways are so used.”.’
This new Clause would create a presumption that byways open to all traffic should be diverted so as to not pass through residential or business premises unless the byway does not impact on the privacy, safety or security of the premises, or provides access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise accessible.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
New clause 15 is all about safety. I want to see a fall in the number of deaths that take place every year as a result of rural accidents, as I am sure does every Member. I am passionate about the safety of those who use the countryside. My recent ten-minute rule Bill proposed greater detail in the recording of agricultural accidents. After discussions with the Health and Safety Executive, I am delighted that my proposals have been accepted. I must thank the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) for his support in discussions with the HSE.
I believe, however, that further measures are necessary. As a farmer, I am alarmed at the risks created by footpaths passing through fields or farmyards. A 21st-century farm is dangerous. Equipment is often operated at higher speeds, is incredibly heavy and has risky blind spots. Livestock can be unpredictable, territorial and easily provoked, for instance by a dog. The death of Roger Freeman, caused—or not—by a Brown Swiss bull in 2010, and the subsequent negligence trial, has brought the issue back into the public eye. To quote a letter from the Ramblers to me,
“The case has really highlighted the necessity to re-examine legislation around bulls being kept in fields with footpaths.”
Recently, I have been contacted by two constituents who have been unable to fulfil their role as parish footpath officers, for fear of their safety on local footpaths. My constituents report being chased from routes by dairy cows. They were particularly harassed when accompanied by a dog and describe the cattle as “extremely persistent and worrying.” Nobody—neither walkers nor farmers—should be placed in a position where their safety is at risk.
Equally, farmers cannot be placed in a position of responsibility for the safety of walkers among livestock. No farmer can say with complete confidence that their cattle would always be 100% safe, including if, for example, they had been stung by a wasp. Farmers are therefore incredibly vulnerable to claims of negligence in accidents where the only evidence is from the victim or hearsay. This pressure can foster resentment against those who use footpaths, creating an atmosphere of walkers versus farmers. Such a division can only be unhelpful. The priority for all must be safety.
Traditional rights of way cannot be held to be a greater priority than the safety of those using them. The risks are very real: 24 people have been killed by cattle in the past four years. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the issue. The right to walk in the countryside does not mean the right to die walking. We must therefore be flexible and allow alterations of rights of way to favour safer routes. Common sense on this issue must prevail.
I must also raise deep concerns about privacy and security in the countryside. One of the great pleasures of the British countryside is that it is free to be enjoyed by all. In this day and age, however, the access provided by footpaths is at odds with society’s fear of strangers. The privacy and security of a family home is something we treasure, yet both of those values must be sacrificed by those who have a footpath running through their home or garden. A footpath allows strangers to come on to their property and close to their family at any hour of the day or night. The feeling of security in one’s home is a luxury that most people take for granted. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but for those with a footpath through their property, there is no security behind their walls.
The desire to protect one’s privacy and security is entirely legitimate and rational. It is natural to be wary of strangers. In January, the Intrusive Footpaths campaign undertook a survey of home owners’ experiences of footpaths. The results present a shocking picture. The IFC found that footpaths through private property have been the cause of two suicides, 12 nervous breakdowns and numerous cases of financially crippling disputes. Families affected in this way should be supported by appropriate legislation, not abandoned to cope with the consequences.
I am listening to my hon. Friend, but Opposition Front Benchers are chuntering. Unfortunately, people who live in urban areas do not appreciate that people who live in rural areas have footpaths that go within 5 or 10 yards of their front doors. It puts enormous stress on people, particularly those who live by themselves, when strangers walk past their front door. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Minister takes note of the stresses put on families who feel that their privacy is being invaded? We are not talking about footpaths that are miles away from people’s front doors.
My hon. Friend is right, and I am sure he will seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and share his expertise with the House. The key thing for Opposition Members to remember is that we are talking about not rights of way, but people killing themselves, or being seriously hurt or injured. That is what we are trying to avoid. We are trying to make sure that every person who walks or works in the countryside is safe.
No one should feel besieged in their own home. Rights of way should not affect someone’s right to safety. I am therefore asking again for flexibility, as I fear that if privacy is not considered as reasonable grounds for safely altering a footpath, more people’s lives will be plagued by intrusion. Common sense must again prevail.
I read with interest the 2010 “Stepping Forward” report by Natural England’s stakeholder working group on unrecorded rights of way. Although the group did not address the safety and privacy of routes, I believe that my new clause is in the spirit of its recommendations. The report praised surveyors for taking use of land into account in footpath diversions. In its evidence to the Bill Committee in February, the group indicated that it has discussed diversions in greater depth since 2010. In her evidence, Sarah Slade of the Country Land and Business Association emphasised her support for making people’s lives easier through diversions. My new clause is a natural progression from the group’s recommendations. I strongly believe that all interested parties would regret missing this opportunity to ease the risks and conflicts created by footpaths.
The stakeholder group’s guidance, which I suspect the Government hope to make statutory, will not overrule the tests that determine changes to footpath routes, so it is not equal to the task in hand. Nor will it deal with the standard objection of—please forgive the wording—“not substantially less convenient”, which is the excuse given when a footpath may be a few metres longer than it was previously. New statutory guidance may therefore help, but it will not solve the problem.
There is a way in which a change can be made at minimal cost, but if there is a single objection, the balance of favour, as it were, goes against the owner of the property. Additionally, the process can cost a vast amount. What makes me sad is that this should be not a fight between the landowner and the person objecting—the walker or whoever it might be—but about safety. If people think that a route can be better, we should make it as straightforward as possible to achieve that.
I am only calling for greater provision in existing highways legislation. The Bill’s aim is to reduce the burden of legislation on day-to-day life, and my new clause would dramatically improve the quality of life of many farmers, home owners and walkers. Ignoring safety and privacy can change rights of way from a delight to a risk. When considering my new clause, hon. Members must understand that its vital element is safety, and that we should consider privacy and security as necessary parts of safety.
Over the past six years, the working group has investigated many issues to do with rights of way, yet it has not addressed the subject of the deaths that occur on them. I am saddened that safety has not been the group’s focus while fatalities have continued. Such deaths are completely unnecessary, because diversions must offer an effective, simple and cheap option to protect walkers. Diverting footpaths does not mean closing off the countryside for walkers; nor does it mean forcing walkers on to roads. It can simply mean changing the route of a right of way to the edge of a field. Walkers’ enjoyment of the countryside would not be lessened by their following the perimeter of fields, but they would be less likely to disturb livestock, and it would be easier and more cost-effective if a farmer wished to fence off that footpath for safety, as only one extra length of fencing would be required.
To encourage that ideal scenario, farmers must be supported when they try to keep the public safe, yet under the existing system they are penalised. A landowner involved in a disputed diversion can face costs of tens of thousands of pounds. At the moment those costs are borne by the landowner. It is irresponsible that the power to allocate full cost recovery lies with county councils, which are not famed for their parsimony. In fact, that is probably the worst possible sort of arrangement. Delay and excessive costs without a cap simply add to everybody’s misery. Farmers who want permanently to alter footpaths on their land to protect the general public and maintain a right of way are delivering a key public service. If a farmer can show that their altered route improves safety, has proper signposting and is away from a road, they should be supported, rather than demonised, by councils.
The Government could provide funding for safe footpaths. The money could come from the rural development programme, funded from pillar two of the common agricultural policy. That option would reduce the burden of disputes involving farmers and councils, but without that assistance, farmers could be forced to copy the image that I am sure we all saw in The Times on 10 May: two long pieces of metal fencing lining a footpath across the centre of a field in Frome. Is that not a terrifying image of the future for rights of way if common sense does not prevail? It is our duty to preserve the Great British countryside for all who are lucky enough to visit it, and to live and work there. Part of that preservation is providing support for those who farm our countryside. Farmers already want the best protection for themselves and those who walk on their land, so I urge the House to support the safety, security and privacy on footpaths that new clause 15 would bring.
I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will be pleased to learn that members of my constituency Labour party and I took part yesterday in what we call, in a comradely fashion, a red ramble. We walked from the site of the battle of Newburn Ford to Wylam, the birthplace of the great engineer George Stephenson. We walked most of the way across the land of the Duke of Northumberland. Unfortunately, we did not see any red squirrels, but we enjoyed the unequalled beautiful countryside, and views of the Tyne. As we walked, we discussed the role of the Labour movement over hundreds of years in fighting for the right of public access, sometimes illegally, including in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout. I mention that to set out to the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) the depth of feeling among Labour Members that causes us to oppose new clause 15.
In government, Labour has demonstrated that depth of feeling by long supporting public access to the countryside and the wider natural environment. In 1949, the post-war Labour Government passed into law a requirement to record public rights of way on a legally conclusive document known as the definitive map and statement. Labour’s 1987 manifesto for government outlined commitments not only to offer all people more freedom to explore the open countryside, but to strengthen the protection of our national heritage. The Countryside and Rights of Ways Act 2000 was one of the most successful and supported pieces of legislation in this area, and it strengthened and consolidated the aims of our original National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, but I do not think that any Government Member disputes the right to go about the open countryside; that argument was won a long time ago—congratulations on winning it. We are concerned about the right of individuals effectively to intrude on people’s private property and to get—
This is all about individuals’ rights to walk on private property, just as I walked over the Duke of Northumberland’s land yesterday. I do not want to belittle or trivialise cases in which property owners experience significant stress, but there are already powers that permit landowners and land managers to apply to a local authority to make an order to divert or close a public path that crosses their land, so additional legislation is not required.
The Bill’s measures on this subject derive from the Natural England stakeholder working group. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that finding a consensus between users, landowners and local authorities, and between Ramblers and the Country Land and Business Association, is such an achievement that it should not be jeopardised. If he wants further proposals to be brought forward, he should work with the stakeholder working group to deliver consensus on them. It is imperative that the measures agreed by the working group are implemented as soon as possible. We do not want them to be jeopardised by the new clauses in the group, especially because those new clauses raise several important questions. For example, who would decide that a public right of way was intrusive? Why are the measures necessary when there are already powers that permit landowners to apply to a local authority, as I set out? Who would define what “limited circumstances” were?
A presumption in favour of a diversion would take powers away from local authorities and reduce the ability of communities to have a say. Is this in accordance with the localism agenda, which I thought all Members on the Government Benches agreed with? Local communities, through their local councils, should have the ability to shape their local area. We should support the rights of all to access the countryside and to maintain existing rights of way, especially as the local countryside offers our citizens benefits in terms of health, exercise and mental well-being.
I shall speak to new clauses 17, 18 and 19.
Many people up and down the country, especially in rural areas, face the daily personal stress and blight of their properties caused by highly intrusive public rights of way across their land, including the gardens of family homes and working farmyards, as well as commercial premises. The new clauses that I propose set out how local authorities should respond to requests to divert or extinguish rights of way, to applications under the right to apply introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, or negotiation under the new modification consent order process set out in paragraph 5 of schedule 7 to the Bill. Specifically, my new clauses 17, 18 and 19 address and amend sections 119, 118 and 116 respectively of the Highways Act 1980.
It might be helpful for the Minister to have a little context and background to my new clauses. The existence of public rights of way within private property raises several concerns, many of which have been highlighted to me by my constituents. Most important among them is the security of the family and property of the landowner, in particular the security of young children. Having in their backyard a public footpath that anyone can access is worrying for parents and impacts on the daily life of their families.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) pointed out, there are issues of safety and security. This is not a subject that I knew anything about until it was raised with me by several constituents, who are extremely frustrated with the existing process designed to protect their family and property. That is what my new clauses are about.
Following on from this are concerns with potential infringements on the privacy of residents and their expectation of being able to relax without strangers appearing in the same contained space. Pathways across land can also reduce the value of the property. That, by the way, is probably the least of my concerns, but it has been raised by my constituents. Finally, farmyard operations put the public potentially at risk because of the limited space through which these routes pass.
I could accept what the hon. Gentleman says if he were referring to hustling, for example, but the fact that he does not seem to address is that many rights of way are very historic. When I was taken by my grandfather to the footpath that went from Esclusham Above to Esclusham Below, I did it in the knowledge that he went with his grandfather. Such rights are intrinsic in our rural areas. That is what we are frightened about.
Yes, yes. I am totally sympathetic with what the hon. Lady says. I am not trying to change historic rights of way. My intention is to create more flexibility in the system to allow paths that go right past people’s front doors and their gardens to be moved slightly. I am not looking to stop people’s access to those ancient rights of way.
In order to solve these problems, the owner of the land in question must seek an order to divert or extinguish the right of way through a modification consent order or an application for public path order. This guidance applies where a public right of way passes through a garden which forms part of the curtilage of a residential dwelling, a working farmyard or forestry yard, or other operational business or working industrial premises. The interests of the landowner must be weighed against the overall impact on the public as a whole—a point that Opposition Members emphasised—and the privacy, security and safety of the landowner are all considerations to which due weight should be given. Furthermore, if the public right of way is extinguished, it should be diverted elsewhere in order to reduce inconvenience to the public.
Now that I have laid out at least some of the rationale for my new clauses, let me touch briefly on each new clause in turn. New clause 17, entitled “Presumed diversion of intrusive public rights of way in limited circumstances”, amends section 119 of the Highways Act 1980 and facilitates statutory guidance to allow for the diversion of rights of way that pass through domestic or business premises on the grounds of privacy, safety or security. New clause 18, entitled “Presumed extinguishment of intrusive public rights of way in limited circumstances”, amends section 118 of the 1980 Act and facilitates statutory guidance to allow for the extinguishment of rights of way that pass through domestic or business premises on the grounds of privacy, safety or security if a diversion is not possible as the right of way provides access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise accessible. Finally, new clause 19, entitled “Presumed extinguishment of intrusive byways open to all traffic in limited circumstances”, is an amendment to section 116 of the Highways Act 1980 and creates a presumption that byways open to all traffic should be diverted so as not to pass through residential or business premises unless the byway does not impact on the privacy, safety or security of the premises or provides access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise accessible.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that although it is essential that we respect the ancient rights provided by footpaths and byways that the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) spoke about in her intervention, it is important that we also respect the privacy, safety and security of individuals and their property. That is the narrow path that I am trying to navigate. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that new clauses 17, 18 and 19 are drafted both to be reasonable to landowners and to respect the rights of individuals to have access to byways, especially if those byways provide access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise accessible. In this spirit I look forward to his response to new clauses 17, 18 and 19 as well as to new clause 15, which is proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire. I end by thanking my constituent Roger Duffin for raising this important issue and for his guidance in enabling me to draft a constructive solution to a sensitive problem.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) and for Braintree (Mr Newmark) for tabling their new clauses and allowing us to discuss the important topic of rights of way and the impact that these can have.
We recognise that all four amendments seek to address the issue of intrusive public rights of way. The Government have been giving very careful consideration to this, in discussion with the rights of way stakeholder working group. The work done by the group has been invaluable in pulling together the potentially divergent views of landowners and ramblers.
The Government acknowledge that for householders, farmers and others, an intrusive footpath can have a substantial impact on their quality of life or on their ability to run a business. We understand that while this is not a widespread problem, where it occurs it can cause severe difficulties, and in a significant number of cases people have been put through years of considerable inconvenience and stress, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire mentioned.
It is not clear to me whether my hon. Friend feels that his amendment would help prevent incidents involving dangerous cattle on footpaths, unless it is envisaged that the presumption that paths should not pass through other land where safety is an issue could be used to close or divert rights of way that run through fields where cattle are present. That would clearly be a radical and sweeping measure that could lead to the closure or diversion of innumerable rights of way with questionable justification. The issue of cattle attacks on public rights of way is being addressed separately by the Government, and there is no suggestion from any of the parties involved that primary legislation is required to sort out the problem to which my hon. Friend rightly referred. It is clear, however, that there has to be a change in the way in which both legislation and policy operate if people are to get a satisfactory hearing, and that is what the Government are doing in the Bill.
We very much sympathise with people’s genuine concerns about the problems that can arise from footpaths running through private gardens and farmyards and recognise that we need to find an acceptable solution, but we do not believe that these new clauses are the best way to go about this. Measures are already being developed that will make a significant difference to the way in which requests for diversions and extinguishments of rights of way will be dealt with by local authorities. We are working towards making effective the “right to apply” provisions in the Bill. That will enable a landowner to make a formal application for the diversion or extinguishment of a public right of way; with that will come the right to appeal to the Secretary of State if the authority rejects the application or fails to act on it, so local authorities will not be able simply to rebuff or ignore representations from a landowner, as they can at present. I hope that my hon. Friends will see that as a positive development.
Moreover, the right to apply will be supplemented by guidance that will effectively act as a presumption to divert or extinguish public rights of way that pass through the gardens of family homes, working farmyards or commercial premises where privacy, safety or security are a problem. That guidance has been developed in agreement with the rights of way stakeholder working group.
Costs can be a significant issue, and the Government and local authorities will clearly want to ensure that they are kept to a minimum.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire asked whether the guidance would be statutory. This is a deregulation Bill, the purpose of which is to minimise the statutory burden rather than increase it. We believe that the combined effect of the right to apply and the guidance will have the desired effect, and we should see how the measures work out in practice before seeking to add to the legislative burden.
A draft of the guidance has been deposited in the House Library. We recognise that it needs further refinement and it remains open for comment. The rights of way reforms will also give local authorities more scope to deal with objections themselves, rather than having to submit every opposed order to the Secretary of State as at present. We believe that the provisions will make a significant difference, and until we see how well the “right to apply” provisions work alongside the new guidance, making further legislation would be premature. The new clauses would create new regulation where it may prove to be unnecessary and create more problems than they resolve.
The issue of intrusive public rights of way is emotive. I can appreciate why it arouses strong feelings and why those affected feel so strongly that something needs to be done. While putting the terms of a presumption on the face of the Act might seem like a way of making sure something happens, it carries a high risk that the presumption will not work as intended and, unlike the guidance, it would not be possible readily to make changes in response to unforeseen circumstances or to take account of new developments.
As the draft guidance on diversions and extinguishments has been developed by the stakeholder working group, there is a strong consensus around it, which means that it is far more likely to be complied with. We welcome the fact that a new working group is likely to be set up through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which will look at some of the other complex issues, such as green lanes—another very difficult issue to which to find a consensual solution. We firmly believe that solutions arrived at in that way, based on agreement and mutual interest, will result in less conflict and less need for enforcement in the long run.
The proposed new clauses also do not strike the correct balance between public and private interests, which is critical to the agreement reached on the guidance by the stakeholder working group. Legislative solutions imposed without a consensus tend to result in more disputes and legal challenges and there is no stakeholder consensus around the legislative changes proposed here. The new clauses would be quite a fundamental change to the current legislative status quo, which should not be made in the absence of either public consultation or stakeholder agreement, so I regret that I must urge my hon. Friends not to press their amendments.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his helpful and constructive comments; it is useful to know that the Government are looking at the risks. I also welcome the formation of a new working group. It does not come as a terribly big surprise that the Government are unwilling to accept new clause 15. However, on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), I thank the Minister for looking at our concerns seriously and promising to keep a watching brief on how things progress.
I say to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who answered for the Labour party, that rights of way are of course emotive and vital, but keeping people alive is more important. Until Labour Members recognise that, they are not fit to be in government. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Private hire vehicles: circumstances in which driver’s licence required
Amendment proposed: 61, page 7, line 22, leave out clause 10, clause 11 and clause 12.—(Mr Marsden.)
It being later than three hours before the moment of interruption, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, 14 May).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).
Reduction of burdens relating to the use of roads and railways
Amendment made: 13, page 25, line 32, at end insert—
“(aa) the duration of driving licences to be granted to drivers with relevant or prospective disabilities;”—(Tom Brake.)
Removal of duty to order re-hearing of marine accident investigations
Amendment proposed: 1, page 26, line 4, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert
“in paragraph (a) leave out from “if new and important evidence” to “discovered” and insert “where secondary investigations have enabled more new, significant, or important evidence to become available, having particular regard to—
(i) enhancing and preserving the rights of those affected by a maritime accident to learn from the proceedings of such reinvestigations and conclusions drawn from them; and
(ii) future safety issues and measures.”.”—(Mr Marsden.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendments made: 36, page 62, line 13, leave out
“authorise the person to apply”
and insert “require the person”.
This amendment is a drafting improvement to make new section 124(3)(a) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 more consistent with the new system for registering driving instructors.
Amendment 37, page 62, line 36, leave out “applicant” and insert “person”.
This amendment is a drafting change to improve the cross-reference between new section 125(3D) and 125ZA(4)(ba) of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
Amendment 38, page 65, line 26, at end insert—
“unless the Registrar considers it appropriate for the application to be made at such earlier time as may be specified by the Registrar.”
This amendment will enable the Registrar to allow an application to undergo a further emergency control assessment under section 133B(4) to be made before the end of the six month period referred to in new section 133B(5A).
Amendment 39, page 66, line 39, leave out “applicant” and insert “person”.
This amendment is a drafting change to improve the cross-reference between new section 125(2D) and 125(5A) of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
Amendment 40, page 69, line 30, leave out paragraph 22.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 43.
Amendment 41, page 72, line 2, leave out from “assessment” to end of line 3 and insert
(i) under section 125(2C) or 129(1B), or
(ii) as mentioned in section 125(5)(a)(ii) or 129(5ZA),”.
This amendment amends new subsection 133B(2A), inserting references to section 129(1B) and section 129(5ZA) to ensure that the ability to re-take failed emergency control assessments applies to assessments taken in connection with licences as well as to those taken in connection with registration.
Amendment 42, page 72, line 15, at end insert—
“unless the Registrar considers it appropriate for the application to be made at such earlier time as may be specified by the Registrar.”
This amendment makes the same change for Part 2 of Schedule 2 to the Bill that amendment 38 makes for Part 1 of Schedule 2.
Amendment 43, page 72, line 37, at end insert—
“Part 5 has effect as if after section 133D there were inserted—
“133E Direction to disregard emergency control assessment requirement
(1) This section applies where a person has been required—
(a) under section 125(2C) or 129(1B), or
(b) as mentioned in section 125(5)(a)(ii) or 129(5ZA),
to submit himself for an emergency control assessment.
(2) At any time before the assessment takes place the Registrar may withdraw the requirement (in which case this Part applies as if the requirement had never been imposed).
(3) At any time after the assessment takes place the Registrar may direct that the requirement is to be disregarded for the purposes of this Part (and accordingly any condition that the person holds an emergency certificate is to cease to apply).
(4) Notice of—
(a) the withdrawal of a requirement under subsection (2), or
(b) a direction under subsection (3),
must be given to the person on whom the requirement was imposed.””
This amendment extends what was new section 128ZZA so that the Registrar’s powers under the section cover emergency control assessments in connection with licences. The new section is inserted after section 133D to reflect its revised content. The amendment which inserted new section 128ZZA is removed by amendment 40.
Amendment 44, page 73, line 21, leave out “In”.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 47.
Amendment 45, page 73, line 23, after “2006,” insert “is amended as follows.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 47.
Amendment 46, page 73, line 25, at end insert—
( ) in the second column, for “for registration as disabled driving instructor” substitute “to be registered in respect of driving instruction”;”.
Amendments 46, 47, 48 and 49 add further consequential amendments to Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, to reflect the amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988 made by Schedule 2 to the Bill.
Amendment 47, page 73, line 26, at end insert—
“(3) In the entry for section 133C(4) of the Road Traffic Act 1988, in the second column, omit “disabled”.
(4) In the entry for section 133D of the Road Traffic Act 1988, in the second column, for “disabled persons” substitute “persons required to hold an emergency control certificates”.”
See amendment 46.
Amendment 48, page 73, line 32, at end insert—
(aa) in the second column, for “for registration as disabled driving instructor” substitute “to be registered in respect of driving instruction”;”.
See amendment 46.
Amendment 49, page 73, line 33, at end insert—
‘(3) In the entry for section 133C(4) of the Road Traffic Act 1988, in the second column, omit “disabled”.
(4) In the entry for section 133D of the Road Traffic Act 1988, in the second column for “disabled persons” substitute “persons required to hold emergency control certificates”.”—(Oliver Heald.)
See amendment 46.
Regulation of the use of roads and railways
Amendment made: 51, page 122, line 26, at end insert—
Duration of driving licences to be granted to drivers with relevant or prospective disabilities
A1 Part 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (licensing of drivers of vehicles) is amended as follows.
A2 In section 99 (duration of licences of drivers of motor vehicles of classes other than any prescribed class of goods vehicle or any prescribed class of passenger-carrying vehicle), in subsection (1)(b) (duration of licence to be granted to person suffering from relevant or prospective disability), for the words from “of not more than” to “may determine” substitute “as the Secretary of State may determine which shall be a period—
(i) of not more than ten years and not less than one year, ending on or before the seventieth anniversary of the applicant’s date of birth, or
(ii) where, at the time the licence is granted, there are less than three years until that seventieth anniversary or where the licence is granted on or after that anniversary, of not more than three years and not less than one year”.
A3 In consequence of paragraph A2, in section 100(1)(b) (appeals relating to licences: determination under section 99(1)(b))—
(a) for “three” substitute “ten”;
(b) after “or less” insert “or, where sub-paragraph (ii) of section 99(1)(b) applies, for three years or less”.”—(Oliver Heald.)
This amendment increases the period for which a driving licence for non-vocational drivers suffering from a relevant or prospective disability can be granted from a maximum of three years to a maximum of ten years, ending no later than the driver’s 70th birthday. Once a driver is over 67, the maximum is three years.
TV licensing: duty to review sanctions
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments 14 and 15.
Amendment 63, in clause 55, page 41, line 26, at end insert—
‘(14) The power conferred by subsection (1) may not be exercised until after the BBC’s Royal Charter has next been reviewed.”
Government amendments 20 and 22.
I want to speak to the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), as well as to the Government amendments.
Clause 54 puts a duty on the Secretary of State to review the sanctions on those who own a television but fail to pay the licence fee. Our amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay the review’s terms of reference before both Houses. Clause 55 gives the Secretary of State a power to decriminalise sanctions on those who fail to pay the licence fee. Our amendment would prevent this power from being used before the completion of the next review of the BBC’s royal charter.
The BBC is a universal service, and the licence fee is a universal payment for anyone with a television. The licence fee is not a tax; it is a guarantee of the BBC’s independence. The BBC is the most trusted source of news in the United Kingdom, with 58% of people rating it as their most trusted news source.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The BBC is now one of the great British brands and it exports across the world.
In the evolution of British broadcasting, the licence fee has gained broad support. Nearly everyone in the UK uses the BBC each week—it has 97% reach—which helps to explain why support for the licence fee is at 53%, up from only 31% in 2004, and is ahead of the 17% support for subscriptions and the 26% support for advertising. It is the top choice for funding the BBC across all ages and all socio-economic groups, whether people are in Freeview, Sky or Virgin households.
Not just the public but other broadcasters appreciate the licence fee, since they have built their business models using finance from advertising, sponsorship and subscription on the assumption that the BBC will not enter those markets and that, as a result, the size of those markets will be fairly stable. Labour believes that the licence fee is the best funding model.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No one wants people to go to prison for non-payment of the licence fee. Last year, 165,000 people failed to pay, and 51 were jailed for non-payment of the associated fines, even though people can pay by instalment. Clearly, we need some sanctions to ensure payment. The question is whether the current sanctions are the right ones. That is why we have agreed to a review of the sanctions.
Our amendment 62 would require the Secretary of State to lay the review’s terms of reference before Parliament, because we want a proper, analytical and unbiased review. I wrote to the Solicitor-General’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who has responsibility for communications, about this matter on 7 April.
Such a review should cover the impact of a change on the level of licence fee evasion. It would be helpful to have historical data on evasion rates. According to the TV licensing database, the statistics on the socio-economic background of unlicensed properties show that 38% are ABs, 29% are C1s, 13% are C2s, 8% are Ds and 11.5% are Es. Those figures are broadly in line with the socio-economic background of UK properties as a whole. That does not translate to the socio-economic status of those prosecuted or imprisoned for non-payment of the licence fee, but it indicates that there is higher evasion among better-off households.
The review should cover the impact on the BBC’s finances. Without that information, we will not know the full impact of evasion. Estimates suggest that a 1% increase in non-payment might lead to a £35 million loss to the BBC. It has said:
“If Licence Fee evasion were to double to around 10%, the BBC would have an estimated…£200 million less per annum for content and services—equivalent to the combined budget of BBC4 and our two children’s channels, CBeebies and CBBC, for example. Due to low rates of evasion at present, an additional £6.7m was available to spend on BBC content in 2012/13.”
Obviously, if evasion went up, such investment would no longer be possible.
The review needs to look at the impact of new technology and the possibility of ending the BBC’s universal offer. Currently, the BBC cannot switch off the signal, so what would happen if it could?
The review also needs to look at alternative sanctions. Should those be a mixture of criminal and civil penalties? Licence fee evasion currently attracts a level 3 penalty, which is in line with other criminal offences, such as using a vehicle untaxed or without insurance. The maximum fine for non-payment is £1,000, although magistrates take account of a person’s income and employment status. The average fine levied last year was about £170, and it was significantly lower for the unemployed. In contrast, civil penalties tend to be fixed at a single level for all affected.
I am sure the Minister knows that under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government intend to raise maximum fine limits across category 1 to category 5 offences. Increasing maximum fines is the Government’s decision. However, the magistrates court sentencing guidelines will consider that when they are finally being tweaked.
The Government amendments are relevant to this particular point. We are content with Government amendments 14, 20 and 22, but I would be grateful if the Solicitor-General gave the House an explanation of Government amendment 15. Why are the Government unwilling to set the penalties on this occasion? Are they thinking of establishing a new quango, or would it be an extra duty that he would give to Ofcom?
The review also needs to look at the cost of collection now and at any alternatives. Obviously, we do not want the costs of collection to rise. Similarly, it is important to look at the costs to the courts now, and again, we would not want those costs to rise if we changed the system.
My understanding is that although licence fee evasion cases make up around 10% of magistrates court criminal cases, the vast majority are heard uncontested and in bulk, with an average presentation time of three minutes. They account for less than 0.3% of court time, so I hope very much that this is not a major plank of the Government’s policy justification.
We also think it would be a good idea to look at other relevant experiences to see whether that would improve the quality of forecasting the effects of changing the system, such as the DVLA, subscription channels, utilities and the council tax. We understand that the DVLA has had to write off around one third of all unpaid fines for non-renewal of vehicle tax, as it is too hard to collect. Of the two-thirds they pursue, less than half are paid. That does not augur well for the BBC licence fee.
Currently, the BBC cannot stop people who do not pay the licence fee using its services, so it is more vulnerable to payment evasion than its competitors, such as Virgin and Sky, which can disconnect non-payers, or the utilities, which can install prepayment meters. Furthermore, around 10% of households have missed or made only partial payments on a utility bill. If licence fee evasion were to increase to that level, it would result in a reduction of around £200 million to the BBC’s revenue. We also think it would be helpful for the Government to look at any international experience. All those are factors that we would want to see in the terms of reference for a good review.
Amendment 63 is even more important. We need to look at the BBC’s finances in the round. The royal charter review is the opportunity for a complete assessment of the role and strategy of the BBC. Changing financing without reference to strategy and role risks producing an unsustainable position. We do not want to see a salami-slicing of the BBC’s position or the insidious undermining of this great national institution, which, if I may say, Mr Deputy Speaker, seems to be the intent of some of the Minister’s more right-wing colleagues, who are not even sitting in the Chamber today, even though they initiated the whole debate. The impact on other broadcasters matters as well. The royal charter review is an opportunity for them and the public to engage fully with the issues.
The mix we have of large and small broadcasters, public service and commercial, has produced the best television in the world. It is a credit to our country, a huge economic success, and a powerhouse of creativity. It is also a delicate balance and not a trinket to be played with. That is why any change to the licence fee must be properly considered at the time of the royal charter review.
I wish to speak briefly on this matter. I have a lot of sympathy with the Opposition’s views, and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is right: we have a lot to be proud of. I am always wary of using the phrase, “It is the envy of the world”, but we have a superb television service and, largely, the British Broadcasting Corporation is responsible for that.
There are those on the Government Benches—I have some sympathy with some of my, as the hon. Lady would put it, “right-wing colleagues”—who worry about the political bias of the BBC. Even its former director-general, Mr Mark Thompson, has referred to that. None the less, I do not think any of us can deny that the BBC does a very good public service with its broadcasting, and it is one that is recognised throughout the world. My concern is this: we are living in a fast-changing world and the notion that the BBC’s licence fee can remain in aspic as the only model of funding is one that would be dangerous for the BBC, as well as for all of us, necessarily to hold close to our hearts.
Criminalisation is also something that I want to speak about briefly. When my late mother died, she was living alone. She had been widowed for some years, and she died in September 2010. I took on the responsibility for looking after her affairs in the home in which she had lived prior to it being sold, which took place some months later. I was appalled by the experience that I had, which I am sure is one shared by many hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen in a similar position. Literally on a fortnightly basis, we got threatening letters from the BBC’s licensing department, saying that we were committing a criminal offence by not having a licence. There is a sense, I am afraid, in which the BBC regards every single home as being fair game, whether anyone is living there or, indeed, using a television set. It certainly was not terribly good public relations, not just for me personally, but, I suspect, for many other people who go through that particular rigmarole. There is a sense that the BBC feels it has the right to claim, almost with menaces, moneys, when the particular circumstances of my mother having passed away made it even more upsetting to get one letter after another in this way.
My hon. Friend makes an important point by talking about his mother’s circumstances. My constituents, too, have had similar experiences with the TV licence and the point they are trying to make is that these approaches by the BBC are overly aggressive. That has helped the push towards the introduction of the amendments.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For those of us who are broadly supportive of the BBC and its values, it is very upsetting to see that aggressive approach, particularly in circumstances such as the ones that I have pointed out, which affect, as I said, many tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen on a day-to-day basis. The notion is put across that somehow, if we lose the money, we will not be able to have CBeebies and BBC4, but again, there has to be a sense of prioritisation in the BBC, which has a very privileged position with its money—some £2.5 billion a year—that it is able to rely on in order to make the excellent programmes to which we have all referred.
I hope that we will have a sensible debate—in fairness to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, she has presented some sensible proposals—on how our British Broadcasting Corporation will be funded. The only warning sign is that we are increasingly living in a world of pay-per-view and a proliferation of channels. Like me, the hon. Lady grew up at a time when, until 1982, there were only three channels. A fourth channel then emerged, and suddenly we had a plethora of channels that we can rely on. As a result, if the BBC is to play as important a part in public life in the decades to come, it must be wise to the fact that there will have to be changes to its funding mechanism, without immediately accusing the House, and others who wish it to survive well into the 21st and future centuries, of being aggressively anti what it does.
I hope that the Solicitor-General will have some proposals regarding what I have said, and particularly that he will ensure that the good will towards the BBC in the hearts of many of our fellow countrymen remains intact. Some of the BBC’s antics are the sorts of things that have allowed people who would otherwise oppose the amendments to hold the views expressed in one or two of them, although, as we see, they will not necessarily be discussed to any great extent.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a brief contribution. I look forward to an interesting debate, which I expect will take place not just on the Floor of the House but will make up an important part of discussions on the renewal of the charter in 2016 and beyond.
It is a delight to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and an enormous shame that those who drafted the original clauses are not present to take part in the debate that they began.
Of course—it stands to reason that the hon. and learned Gentleman was present; otherwise, he would not have been able to speak to the amendments. That is a rather redundant, kind of tautologous point—[Interruption.] No, the debate is not finished and I am sorry that the Solicitor-General is adopting that approach. The honest truth is that the Government have approached this whole issue in completely the wrong order. The amendments tabled this evening are the only way we can correct that order because we are putting the cart before the horse.
Surely we should decide what the point of the BBC is and how it should be financed, and then decide on sanctions should those things not be met—not the other way round. Under the Bill, however, before any review of the licence fee and the next charter, it has been decided in principle that there should be a change to the arrangement on sanctions for not paying the licence fee. That is completely the wrong way round. The Government have caved in to some frankly preposterous Back-Bench campaigning, and it is a shame that those campaigners are not present to see the end of this debate and listen to the next stage. The discussion is far from over.
If the Education Secretary were here and looking for a list of British values, I would tell him that I would put the BBC and British broadcasting at the top of that list. I have spoken to politicians from India who said that the style of broadcasting that we invented in this country and exported around the world inspired them to have free and independent broadcasting in their country. I have known politicians from Chile, Argentina and Spain who talked of sitting under the kitchen table and hiding while listening to British broadcasting on the radio—largely through the World Service as it was in the past—because they believed that was the only way they could get an independent source of news.
In one moment.
The BBC is not just about independent news; it is about a long tradition of being able to tell a story about British society in a way that incorporates the whole of human experience. That tradition probably stretches way back to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe and all the rest, and I believe that the modern BBC sits solidly and squarely slap bang in the middle of that tradition, and is itself a British value. The fact that it is funded by the licence fee is part of that—everybody gets to pay for and share in it, and everybody gets something out of it. I know there are people who believe that the licence fee should pay only for high-minded broadcasting—perhaps for news, classical broadcasting and the like.
In a moment.
Many of my constituents are on low incomes and in a deprived community, but they are happy to pay the licence fee because it guarantees something for everybody. For them, the sport on television, which would probably be commercially available elsewhere, is public service broadcasting; “EastEnders” is public service broadcasting. The quality that is brought by ordinary broadcasting to everyday lives is part of what people in my constituency believe to be public service broadcasting.
No, not the values. Some might have questioned some of the services, but not the values or the news services and values that are espoused there—absolutely not. The key issue is whether the late-payment approach should be decriminalised, and that is what all Government Members were keen to do.
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, who I know is fair minded. If he were to return to the previous debates, I think he would say that the fundamental argument made by those proposing these measures is that the licence fee should pay only for high-end broadcasting. Frankly, I think of that as getting the poor to pay for broadcasting for the rich. That is why I believe in a licence fee that is paid by every household and guarantees something for everybody.
Absolutely. I am not opposed to the idea of ending present licensing offences per se, although I think there are dangers in that which I will come to in a moment. However, doing it in this order, and in a Deregulation Bill that has nothing to do with broadcasting or licensing, is particularly bizarre. On the whole I dislike Christmas tree legislation, which is what the Bill has become, and these proposals are wholly inappropriate. If we had a broadcasting Bill, I would be happy to see these matters debated in the round and in the context of broadcasting. I think we would have a fuller Chamber—better viewing figures perhaps, and not just BBC executives who are doubtless following every second of this debate.
As we consider current offences and whether they should be swept away, we must bear in mind the fact that broadcasting always tends towards monopoly as that is its fundamental nature. It is very expensive to make a programme, but it is more or less as expensive to show that programme to one person as it is to show it to 5,000, 2 million or 5 million people.
If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish this argument, I will give way.
I think it appropriate, especially in markets of the size we have in the United Kingdom, to ensure that a pot of money is available for local, British programming—programmes made in this country that reflect its interests, not just in terms of news and current affairs, but drama, comedy, religion, and all the different genres. That is an essential part of ensuring that monopoly does not always triumph.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) referred to the £2.7 billion that the BBC is guaranteed as though that were an enormous amount of money. It is nothing compared with Sky, which has £7 billion a year; and how much programming does it produce that is then exported round the world on behalf of Britain? To what extent does it sell Britain abroad? How much does it reflect the whole of British society? It is difficult enough to get a Sky journalist to travel outside the M25, let alone all the way down to Wales, for heaven’s sake. That is why I believe we must have an alternative in the public sector to the monopoly that will otherwise be set up.
I had hoped to agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about this measure being in a Christmas tree Bill. I agree with him fundamentally that it would be better to have it in a proper broadcasting Bill, but the difficulty is that we focus our minds on the BBC only when the renewal of the charter comes up, which is not necessarily the best time to look at these things in the broadest sense. However, I disagree with what he said about Sky. Ultimately, we are all consumers of Sky. It is the market that decides, and if there were no market for it, Sky would not have £7 billion in its coffers. We have £2.7 billion in the BBC, which I think does a terrific job, given that amount of money, but it is right that the market should prevail to a certain extent.
Perhaps what the hon. Gentleman says reflects his constituency, but for the majority of the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, the only way in which my constituents could get BBC 3, BBC 4 or, in most parts of it, BBC 2, let alone Channel 4, was to pay Sky. It had an absolute monopoly on digital television in the south Wales valleys. Because of the mixture of platforms, the geography, the various ways in which, for instance, mansion block flats in London work and all the rest of it, it is important that we have a public service broadcaster with a commitment and a statutory requirement to deliver to every household and provide something for everybody: the 83-year-old who likes listening to Chaucer and Mantovani—if there is a person who likes only that combination—and the 18-year-old who is interested only in the kind of things that are shown on BBC 3.
That is an important commitment and we need that combination, because as somebody once put it to me, if we are to have one 800 lb gorilla in the forest, in the shape of Sky, it is a good idea to have a second 800 lb gorilla in the forest, because that is safer for everybody. The competition we have in the UK between public service broadcasting and the commercial sector is positive. We were wrong in the past to campaign against having ITV and the commercial sector and all the rest. It is right to have that mixture. The two feed off each other, and Sky is now finally learning that it is a good idea to produce programmes of its own.
The licence fee is a phenomenal success for this country. The £2.7 billion that the hon. Gentleman talks of is basically an investment in production, which is why programmes are sold all around the world. We are the only country in Europe that manages to be a net exporter of programming. That might be because of our history, but I think it is also because we have a strong BBC. I also think that the alternatives to the licence fee that are experienced elsewhere in Europe, which many people tout—for instance, Germany has a mixture of a licence fee and advertising, others have a public service broadcasting model based just on advertising, and the Netherlands has a fixed amount of income tax—are more flawed than the licence fee. To paraphrase Churchill, yes, the licence fee may be terrible—for all the reasons that I am sure people can adduce: it is not progressive, it bears down unequally, it affects everybody, whether they are rich or poor, and all the rest of it—but it is better than all the alternatives.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s argument as closely as I can. He makes the point about how important it is to ensure proper programming and how important the licence fee is, but what we are talking about in this debate is whether it should be a criminal offence to pay the fee late or to be unable to pay it. There are many other worthy providers of great public services that do not have that right. That is what we are discussing.
It is not, actually. What we are discussing is the order in which the Government should proceed—in other words, whether they should first decide what the future sanction should be and then review the licence fee, or whether they should first review the licence fee and the charter and then decide what the sanction should be. I believe the latter is the only logical and commonsensical way of proceeding. That is why I am strongly supportive of the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland has tabled, because that is precisely what they do. It would be extraordinary if the Government were to oppose our amendments this evening. I know that the Solicitor-General is sometimes a very reasonable man—[Interruption]—although he has not got his reasonable face on now, I see.
I have read all the debates, which were actually about fundamental principles as well, and the fundamental principle for me is that we should do the whole policy in the round, rather than doing it piecemeal in a deregulation Bill.
That takes me to the key point about sanctions. Whatever regime one moves to—whether one decriminalises or not—one needs some form of sanction if one is not fundamentally to undermine the licence fee. As I understand it, the Government do not want to undermine the licence fee. They still support it—[Interruption.] From the look on the Solicitor-General’s face, I see that he is not so sure about that. However, broadly speaking, given that the majority of people in this country support the licence fee and believe that although it might not be perfect—they may support decriminalisation—it is none the less the best way to finance the BBC, it is only common sense for us to ensure that some of form of sanction is available.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland pointed out, we would need only a very small increase in the rate of licence fee evasion to see a significant fall in BBC income. I can imagine Government Members then being the first to say, “You can’t cut spending on programming in my area”, or “You can’t cut the regional current affairs programme”, or “You can’t cut spending on orchestras”, or “You can’t cut spending on programmes that are produced and delivered in my part of the country.” However, I say to them that if the Government make it easier for people to evade the licence fee, because they have not put in place sanctions—
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He was not here for the beginning of the debate. End of story, I am afraid.
If the Government do not put proper sanctions in place, they are in danger of cutting the overall income for the BBC. On the whole, I think the idea of a summary review of the licence fee, as well as the way in which Governments have sometimes tended to proceed with a new royal charter, is problematic in a modern democracy. It has meant going through the back door of Buckingham palace, rather than in through the front door of this palace in Westminster. On the whole, I would prefer a proper debate in the round. If there are going to be changes after the next charter review and the next licence fee review, that is the time for us to make proper decisions about how we ensure that the licence fee is not undermined but that some of the egregious examples we have all heard of—people being been sent to prison for what is a minor offence—are dealt with too.
As I have said before, in many ways I agree that the licence fee is terrible—it bears down heavily on the poor, just as it bears down on the rich—but it also means that the poor have an opportunity to get quality television. There are very few things in this country about which one can genuinely say with one’s hand on one’s heart, “We do it better than anyone else in the world”, but I honestly think we do broadcasting better than any other country in the world. By proceeding in the wrong order, because of how the Government have mishandled this debate, there is a danger that we will undermine the licence fee and break something that is fundamentally a British value—good public service broadcasting.
We have had a short but lively debate, and I would like to put it on record that no Government Member said that the BBC was not a fantastic institution, or anything of that sort. Our debate was not about the licence fee, although the charter review is coming up, and that will have a process of its own; it was about enforcement.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen)—I pay tribute to the way he put his case—made the point that there are many poor and vulnerable people who struggle with the licence fee, and they can be criminalised and even sent to prison for failure to pay it. He clearly felt concerned about them, and made his case in that way. It was not developed as some kind of veiled attack on the BBC. I think it right to look at decriminalisation. Even the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) seemed to accept that at one point, and he even seemed to accept that it would be right to have a review of the sort proposed by the Government. Again, I do not see much cross-party disagreement there.
Clearly, the Government will not take up the invitation of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and say what the outcome of the review and the penalties will be—something I thought she said. She asks why the Government are unwilling to set the penalties now; the answer is that we have not yet had the review. Whether one particular body will have the duty of setting the variable fees is another issue for the review; we want a proper review that will look into all aspects of the issue. As to what analysis has been done of the potential impacts—positive and negative—of switching to a civil rather than a criminal enforcement, or of having the option of both, we are having a review precisely to determine that. The whole point is that we do not want to prejudge the review.