[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the taxi trade.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. The black hackney carriage is one of the great icons of our capital city, the knowledge of London produces the most qualified taxi drivers in the world and the licensed taxi trade is a mainstay of public transport systems in towns and cities across the UK, but unless action is taken, London’s famous black taxi risks being driven off the road altogether.
The taxi and private hire industry is, in many respects, at the cutting edge of an industrial revolution that is sweeping the world at unprecedented scale and pace. Breakthroughs in technology offer unlimited potential to improve our quality of life and revolutionise the way we travel, but we have seen on the streets of London and other major cities around the world how technological advances can be exploited by multinational companies that seek to drive competitors off the road with a business model based on poor pay and conditions for drivers, exploitation of regulatory loopholes and predatory pricing that is made possible by huge venture capital and aggressive tax avoidance.
I am sure my hon. Friend knows that black cabs are actually manufactured in Coventry and on its outskirts. A lot of investment—Chinese investment, actually—has gone into black cabs over the past few years. The developments that he describes may have a consequence for the production of black cabs, meaning that a lot of jobs could be at stake. I studied the Taylor report, and I noticed that it is actually very weak in dealing with that situation. A lot of people—not least taxi drivers themselves—are quite concerned about the consequences.
I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend can be proud of the role that Coventry’s manufacturing plays in the licensed taxi industry. My argument is that there are two possible futures, both for the manufacturing of vehicles and manufacturing jobs, and for other areas of the taxi and private hire industry: a bright future or an existential crisis. The Government have a clear role in ensuring that we head towards a bright future rather than a bleak future.
The all-party parliamentary group on taxis, which I am proud to chair, was founded with that in mind, to ensure that the trade has a strong voice in Parliament. For the past six months we have conducted a wide-ranging inquiry on the future of the trade, which led to the publication of our report, “Lessons from London: The future of the UK taxi trade”. I will focus on that report and its recommendations.
I am glad to see the Minister here. I know that he takes an interest in the future of the trade and in these issues, and I look forward to working with him. He will be pleased to know that, during our inquiry, we engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in and around the industry to look at issues such as passenger and public safety, the effectiveness of regulation, and the future of the taxi trade. I was delighted that an APPG inquiry, as opposed to a Select Committee inquiry, generated such interest. We received 115 pieces of written evidence and heard from a wide range of witnesses at three oral evidence sessions.
I want to place on the record my thanks to that wide range of stakeholders, which included the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association; United Private Hire Drivers; Transport for London; the GMB and Unite trade unions; Addison Lee; Gett; mytaxi; the London Taxi Company; Guide Dogs UK; and the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I also want to say a particular thank you to my constituents. It would take some time to name all the constituents I have had conversations with about this issue—as many people know, Ilford North still has a reputation for being “green badge valley”—but I particularly thank Danny Fresco, Jim Ludlow, Steve Kenton and Sean Harris for the time they have taken to engage with me throughout my time as their Member of Parliament. It is a source of regret that, although Uber was invited to give evidence, it chose not to, because it has a direct role and responsibility in many of these issues. I hope that its level of engagement will change.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work with the all-party group, particularly in producing such an excellent report. Does he agree that a lot of the report’s recommendations are applicable not just in London but across the whole of the UK? He will be aware that taxi drivers from my constituency in Cardiff, and many others, made submissions to the inquiry. The group’s findings apply to many of the issues that the trade faces across the UK.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I really welcome his engagement with the inquiry as a Cardiff Member. In many respects, London bears the brunt of these issues, but many other towns and cities across the country are equally—if differently—affected. Our intention when producing the report was to ensure that we learned lessons from London but also addressed issues that apply across the UK.
I am sure my hon. Friend realises that the regulations were actually eased some years ago, under the coalition Government. That makes local authorities powerless to do anything about these issues—Coventry, for example, has the same problem with Uber. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), I have consulted trade unions and taxi drivers themselves, and they are very concerned.
My hon. Friend leads me neatly into the inquiry’s first theme: the effectiveness of regulation. Some taxi and private hire vehicle legislation is more than 100 years old. It includes the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and, in London, the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and the London Cab Order 1934. I should probably declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and an elected member of the London Borough of Redbridge. I strongly agree with the Local Government Association and the Law Commission that we need a taxi and private hire vehicle licensing reform Bill. There have been sweeping changes across the taxi and private hire industry, and legislation and regulation have not effectively caught up. That is causing a wide range of issues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He mentions looking again at taxi legislation. Does he agree that pedicabs, which are something of a problem in central London—they have created a lot of concern about passenger safety and congestion, particularly in the west end—should come within that legislation?
I wholeheartedly agree. Rickshaws are not just a nuisance on the streets of central London that add to congestion, but given some of the exorbitant prices that their riders propose to charge, they increasingly also rip off tourists. I saw a rickshaw outside Parliament the other day whose rider was proposing to charge £10 for a cycle up the road from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. That is terrible value for money and reflects badly on our city. If tourists want an expert guide to take them around London, they should hail a black taxi.
Turning to the need for effective regulation, there has been an explosion in the number of private hire vehicles on the streets of London, and new entrants to the taxi and private hire market have emerged. I am in no way opposed to competition, and I strongly encourage innovation, but the Minister and licensing authorities need to address the issue of fair competition. There have been calls for improvement. The APPG took evidence about the impact of the considerable growth in private hire on congestion on the streets of London. Similarly, many passenger groups and drivers complain about the erratic driving of people who are not properly qualified to drive cabs. I commend to the Minister the recommendation in our report that licensing regulations for private hire vehicles should be updated to include mandatory enhanced topographical tests for PHV drivers, so that they have some awareness of the local community in which they operate.
I commend my hon. Friend and the all-party group for the report, and I apologise for the fact that I cannot stay for the whole debate.
This is also an issue in my constituency and in the borough of Trafford. Does he agree that, although it is obviously an issue of safety, it is also an issue of customer confidence and trust? When unregulated or poorly regulated drivers, or drivers who are subject to poorly enforced regulation, come into an area that they do not know, and where they do not know the customer needs, that has an impact on the reputation of the whole of the legitimate industry.
I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, many passengers have experienced the frustration of being in a car where the driver has their nose in the sat-nav, rather than concentrating on the road in the way they ought to. Often drivers choose to take routes that the passenger, who lives in the area, knows full well will be heavily congested, but because the driver lacks basic awareness of the roads around them they end up taking routes that are inefficient and add to congestion, which delays passengers. That is why we recommend in our report that the licensing authorities should produce a code of conduct for the use of apps by taxi and private hire vehicle drivers, and that the Government should consider introducing a national code of conduct with basic minimum standards for drivers in all parts of the country to adhere to.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is long overdue. We really need an in-depth debate on taxi licensing, and he is making the argument for why. I congratulate him on his review.
My local licensing officer makes a point relevant to the one that my hon. Friend is making, talking about the problem of:
“Cross-border hiring and control of taxis coming into our area. We cannot set the standards for these vehicles and we have no authority to enforce…them. We are concerned about the impact that this could have on public safety.”
One of my local councils, Rossendale Borough Council, was licensing taxis the length and breadth of the United Kingdom not so long ago, which affected other authorities. That cannot be right.
I have read the report, which is very good. As a former taxi driver, I know how taxi drivers operate and the issues that they face along with passengers. Cross-border hiring is a massive issue. The report says that there has been a 30% reduction of income for drivers in London, but in other areas it is even bigger. A lot of drivers are leaving the trade because other drivers are coming in from other authority areas where following regulations and getting licenses is easy. There should be a cap not only on private hire vehicles—
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I welcome him to his place in the House. He brings with him considerable expertise on this topic and others, and he will be a great representative for the people of Bedford. He anticipates what I am going to say about cross-border hiring and the cap on private hire numbers. However, before I do that, I want briefly to pick up one issue that has been floating around for some time but has yet to be addressed properly.
The Government recognised that the pace of change in the taxi and private hire industry necessitated some change to legislation and regulations, so they asked the Law Commission to do some work on that. In 2014, the Law Commission produced a report, including a draft Bill, in which it identified plying for hire as one of the grey areas in need of clarification by legislation.
Many hon. Members will know that under existing regulations licensed taxi drivers in London have to undergo about 8,000 hours of training to pass the knowledge, and only licensed taxi drivers are allowed to ply for hire by picking up from a rank or in response to someone hailing a cab. With the introduction of new technology, there are people effectively hailing private hire vehicles all the time through the click of a button, and that is causing real anger and anxiety on the part of licensed taxi drivers. It is not simply that people feel that the existing law is being flouted. There is a lack of clarity about how we move forward when things have changed, with new technology platforms.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. My local taxi drivers have shown me where they can locate 15 or 16 Uber cabs sitting around St Albans in car parks. Because they are hailed from the station, that does not count as plying for hire, but it is—it is touting for business but being on another street. Surely that cannot be allowed.
I agree. Actually, in some cases, Uber cars use taxi ranks constantly on the streets of central London. There are real issues about how the existing law is enforced and there is a need to clarify it. In our report, we strongly supported those who made representations, particularly the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other trade unions, including Unite, for which Mike Hedges gave evidence to our panel. We need Ministers to clarify their position on the two-tier system by issuing a formal response to the Law Commission’s 2014 report and by introducing a legally enforceable statutory definition of plying for hire.
My hon. Friend is making a case for the updating and modernisation of the regulation and law applying to private hire and hackney carriages. He referred to the Law Commission report, which recommends a national system, and we have had reports from competition authorities that refer to deregulation. Does he agree that the licensing of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles should remain a local authority affair and that, when we look at the facts, deregulation nearly always leads to a worse service?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who leads me directly on to cross-border hiring. He is correct that, although the Government have not formally responded to the Law Commission report and have not introduced as anticipated a new licensing reform Bill for taxi and private hire vehicles, the Deregulation Act 2015 meant that private hire vehicle drivers operating in one area could be licensed in a different area: an issue known as cross-border hiring. In practice, that means that where local authorities have rightly and appropriately determined specific licensing conditions suitable for their local community and population, drivers can abuse the patchwork quilt of licensing regulations across the country to flout rules.
Most alarmingly, we saw evidence of that happening in Rotherham. Right hon. and hon. Members will be acutely aware that in response to the terrible child sexual exploitation scandal, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council rightly introduced one of the toughest licensing regimes in the country, including the requirement for drivers to have a recording device—either a camera or audio equipment—in operation at all times when someone under the age of, I think, 16 was travelling in the vehicle. However, the council found that private hire drivers could flout those conditions by licensing their vehicle in another part of the country. They could then operate on the streets of Rotherham quite legally and the council could do nothing about it. We heard compelling evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) about the risks presented to the people of Rotherham because those robust standards are being undermined.
Rotherham is the most serious example, but it is not the only example. Reading Council decided not to grant Uber a licence, yet drivers from Uber license themselves in London and drive around the streets of Reading. I was struck by the evidence provided to my office by the Mayor of London about the number of TfL licences granted and where the drivers live. For example, 747 people have TfL-issued licenses but live in Birmingham, 260 people live in Manchester and yet have licences granted in London, and 378 people live in Bristol but have licences granted by TfL in London. That is clearly flagrant abuse of the system.
We set out a common-sense approach to dealing with this problem: to create a statutory definition of cross-border hiring under which a journey must begin or end in the licensing authority where the licence was issued. That would be simple and easy to enforce and would solve the problem instantly.
My hon. Friend is making a strong point, and I completely agree with him. Is he aware that this problem is replicated in other parts of the country? In Cardiff we see people with licences granted in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Newport and other locations coming in and working almost entirely in Cardiff, which has different standards. There may also be a specific issue on insurance. People are often insured in other authority areas and may be underinsured for where they operate the majority of their work, or indeed for where they leave their car on the street.
My hon. Friend again makes a powerful point, which was very much reinforced by the evidence we received during our inquiry. I really hope that the Department for Transport acts on cross-border hiring; I think measures on that will be welcomed by local authorities across the country. I am conscious of time and the fact that several hon. Members wish to speak, so I will canter through some of the report’s other recommendations, but I will indulge my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) before I do.
I have to go to another meeting, so I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. One main issue that is very important but is not mentioned in the report is the safety of drivers. Drivers are very vulnerable, especially at night time, and if they have four or five passengers in their car they can get a lot of abuse. There is no mention of driver safety in the report, and I would like something to be added. Does he agree that driver safety is a serious issue that we need to be concerned about?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and I will pick it up when I talk about passenger safety. He is quite right that driver safety is something we should take seriously.
We heard compelling calls from a range of stakeholders, particularly people from London, about the need for local licensing authorities to have the power, to be exercised when they need it, to cap the number of private hire vehicles on the streets of a particular town or city. In London, we have seen an explosion in the number of private hire licences to around 120,000—up from 60,000 in, I think, 2010, which is a huge increase. Those private hire vehicles contribute to the congestion on the streets of London, which is filling our air with toxic emissions that result in the preventable deaths of more than 9,000 Londoners each year.
A report by the London Assembly, “London Stalling”, found that the number of private hire vehicles entering the congestion zone had increased by 54% since 2013, and that private hire vehicles are a cause of rising congestion. Those are not necessarily the most polluting vehicles on the streets of London, but the congestion to which they contribute means that more toxic fumes are being pumped into the air. There are two aspects to that. One is that Transport for London and the Mayor of London have been clear that they would like to cap the number of private hire vehicles on the streets of London to tackle the problem, but that they do not have the power to do so. The Government should be permissive in this area, trust local authorities to make appropriate decisions and give them the power to cap the number of private hire vehicles where appropriate. Of course, such a cap would only work if the Department for Transport also tackled cross-border hiring. I hope we will see effective action in both of those areas.
On passenger safety, I have already talked about cross-border hiring and the flouting of local licensing rules, but there is also the issue of insurance, which has already been referred to. All taxis and private hire vehicles are required to hold hire and reward insurance whenever they are carrying a passenger. However, we found during our inquiry that licensing authorities had no way of confirming whether a private hire vehicle had a hire and reward policy in place after its initial licensing, and that police and enforcement officers were only able to tell whether a vehicle was insured or not, rather than what type of insurance the driver held. We recommend that the Government legislate to require all private hire vehicles to have full hire and reward insurance for the duration of a licence, and explore the potential for private hire vehicle operators to have their own hire and reward fleet insurance, to cover all their registered drivers and vehicles.
We also heard powerful evidence on accessibility. I am proud that black hackney carriages are accessible and are a key part of the disability transport network of this city and many others across the country. However, there is still further to go on this. Some 42% of assistance dog owners were refused by a taxi or private hire driver in a one-year period, so although I strongly welcome the action that the Government have already taken in this area—introducing a £1,000 fine for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers who refuse to transport wheelchair users—there is a lot further to go.
First, we need to make sure that all drivers can communicate with passengers and understand their disability access requirements. That is why I strongly support the measures that the Mayor of London is trying to introduce on English language testing for drivers before they are able to take a licence. Secondly, the Government and the licensing authorities should require all private hire and taxi drivers who are given a licence to undertake mandatory disability equality training and take an associated test to make sure that they can properly support disabled passengers.
I will have to make progress, otherwise I will encroach on the time for other Members to speak. I have talked about the need for taxi and private hire drivers to undergo topographical training, so that they are better drivers and have better skills.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford—he is no longer in his place; he has another commitment—made a powerful contribution on driver safety, and we really need to look at that, particularly since card payment machines have been put in the back of black taxis. Drivers in my constituency feel more vulnerable than ever if something goes wrong with that machine, because they have to get out of the vehicle to deal with an issue in the back. I have heard stories of drivers being abused or people not paying their fare. Drivers put themselves at risk, and we might want to look at increasing the penalties and sentences for people who abuse taxi drivers in the way we are considering for other public sector workers.
On the future of the taxi trade, it is often said that taxi drivers are not interested in modernisation and are stuck in the past, but I have not found that to be the case. Drivers are keen to drive the new zero emission capable taxis and are excited about the opportunity to reduce polluting emissions from their vehicles. To ensure that they are able to drive them, we hope that the Government will put in place an adequate rapid charging infrastructure to support their use. We also need to make sure that those cabs are affordable. I know that the Government are already looking at grants, as is the Mayor of London, but we also need to look at exemptions from vehicle excise duty. I know that we will have to make that case to the Chancellor and the Treasury, but exemptions would make a real difference to drivers’ ability to take up that challenge.
We also need to have a serious discussion on the fares regime, particularly in London, and the extent to which taxi drivers are heavily disadvantaged by fares, which are often set without adequate consultation with the trade. We also need a discussion about the extent to which competitors—particularly Uber—are able to offer artificially low prices and flood the market with drivers in order to drive their competitors off the road. That affects not just licensed taxi drivers but private hire drivers, including Uber drivers, who have seen their incomes fall in recent years because it is in Uber’s interest to flood London with as many drivers as possible to maximise its revenues, even if that is at the expense of fast journeys and decent pay and conditions for both taxi drivers and private hire drivers. We need to approach this from the point of view of fair competition, rather than the elimination of competition.
Action by Ministers is long overdue. The debate about the future of the taxi trade has often been unfairly characterised as a debate between those who support competition and innovation and those who want to cling to the past. That is a lazy analysis. As I have demonstrated this afternoon, the taxi drivers I represent are not afraid of innovation or competition; increasing numbers of drivers are embracing new platforms such as Gett and mytaxi. Many cab drivers also accepted card payments long before it was mandatory, and a great many more are keen to get behind the wheel of the new generation of carbon neutral, electric-capable taxis to play their part in improving air quality and protecting our environment.
However, the consistent theme I found as a constituency MP during our inquiry was that taxi drivers find it increasingly difficult to compete with both hands tied behind their backs in a changing marketplace. Our challenge now is to make sure that the trade enjoys a bright future as well as a proud history. I strongly believe that, with smart and effective regulation and new national standards, the taxi and private hire industries can succeed. I say to the Minister, who is a good man, that many small businessmen and businesswomen and their families are counting on Ministers to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate and on an excellent report. As a vice-chair of the all-party group on taxis, I would love to take lots of credit for the report, but he has worked really hard on it, and we need to take on board many of the things in it.
In Sutton, as in many London constituencies, there is a range of black cab drivers, Uber drivers and other private hire drivers, and some have approached me over the last couple of years to speak about the trade. Black cabs are having an incredibly difficult time, and especially yellow badge drivers, who are restricted to ply for trade in outer London, not least because there are few pick-up points. Business is really drying up for them, and they are finding it very difficult. We need to find ways, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, of modernising the trade, while giving the premium product that a black cab is and allowing them to survive and thrive in and around London.
I know that, until recently, Heathrow was a significant issue for cab drivers because a lot of Uber drivers were taking up parking spaces around the airport. That added to the congestion around Heathrow, which as we all know is pretty horrendous at the best of times.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that people want to become environmentally friendly with their vehicles, but there is a huge onus and cost on black cab drivers when they have to renew their cars. The boundaries are always being pushed, environmentally. To invest maybe £35,000 or £50,000 in a new vehicle is really hard for black cab drivers when they are seeing their trade reduced at the same time. That is partly because of the environmental issues, and it is partly because over the years there have been too few suppliers—only two or three—of black cabs. That has helped to push the price up, to the cost of the drivers.
We have talked about the modernisation of the trade. It is good to see the change in drivers’ attitudes; they are keen to look at card payments and to have greater access for wheelchair users. I remember, probably about 15 years ago, joining my best friend in trying to get a cab. At the time, black cab drivers had to pay about £1,500 to get ramps to make the cabs accessible. The driver stopped, took one look at us and said, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty,” and got back in his car and drove off. That was ridiculous, so I complained to Transport for London, and the driver rightly got hauled over the coals. I know that all the cab drivers I see would be rightly horrified by that. They stick together and keep together as a trade really well, so any stain on the trade from one rogue driver does them all no good whatsoever. It is great that they stick together and stick up for black cabs.
Black cabs are a premium product, so they will always cost more than, for example, Uber cars. A few people want to drive Uber off the ground, but the majority of the black cab trade take the view outlined by the hon. Member for Ilford North: they accept competition; they just want fair competition. That is absolutely right. Uber is disruptive by nature, so it will always come in and cause difficulties for a long-established, regulated trade such as black cabs. However, it has to be fair. The pricing has to be fair to drivers and to competition.
Uber does supply something that we have not talked about yet, which is flexibility for drivers. We were talking about the modernisation of the economy last week as a Government, with the release of the Taylor report. A lot of Uber drivers like the flexibility. They like being able to have a few hours here and a few hours there, possibly as a second income to supplement a lower-paid job. It is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater when looking at Uber and how to tackle this, to ensure a relatively level playing field for all concerned. The average Uber driver gets about £15 an hour, and we need to look at that in the bigger scheme of things when talking about competition between the two and how drivers are affected.
I totally agree that we must tackle cross-border hiring. I would be interested to know exactly how it would work. The hon. Gentleman talked about cars starting and stopping in a particular regulated area. I live on the outskirts of London. If I lived quarter of a mile further south, I would be in Surrey. I wonder how it would work in those border areas, when we are trying to get out of central London, but the principle is absolutely right. I have the same figures as him, and it cannot be right that we have 69 people coming from Cardiff and 83 people coming from Leeds to drive cabs around London. I do not think it would be too difficult to tackle cross-border hiring between Leeds and London, but maybe Carshalton and central London is a bit different. I would be interested to see how that might work.
I agree that the plying for hire definition needs to be modernised. I would not want it to exclude the competition being established in London, but the grey area needs to be removed, so that everybody knows exactly where they stand. It is all part of the modernisation. I agree as well that the Mayor should have the power to cap the number of private hire licences. I asked the Department for Transport on 27 April what representations it has had from the Mayor of London on changing the law, so that he can cap that number. The answer came back that the Department has had zero formal representations. I am interested to know what has happened since April and what the Mayor of London has done to push that forward. I would certainly support him on that.
I agree that we need to incentivise the take-up of electric cars. I know that companies such as BluePoint are establishing charging points around London. It would be good to look at how that might work in taxi ranks, so that black cabs could have better access to charging points, rather than them just being for the new generation of private electrical cars.
Finally, it is absolutely right that an English test is being introduced for private hire drivers, but we need to ensure it is measured, practical and does what it needs to, to ensure that drivers can speak to passengers and understand signs. The idea of writing essays about a variety of things seems a little distracting. I would rather see a really practical English test, so that they can do their job.
We need to get the balance right between black cabs and the competition, including Uber. There is a lot to commend in the report, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North once again on his work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). His account was exhaustive, and the work of the all-party group has been extremely helpful. A proper discussion of the issues around the industry is long overdue. I do not want to rehearse the arguments that have been made, but I will make a few observations on some of the things I have learned over almost a decade of trying to understand how the trade works in my area.
Although the APPG’s report is excellent, it has a picture of a black cab on the front—it has a London focus, which is entirely reasonable. However, one thing that has struck me as I have gone around the country is how different things are in different places, and how difficult that makes it for us to cope with all the different local circumstances. That is why there will always be a role for the local licensing authority.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who led an Adjournment debate on this subject just over a year ago. He gave a brilliant account, which should almost be obligatory reading for Members as they start to consider this issue. I also pay tribute to the local people in my area who have explained the issue.
The complexity of the issue is shown by the Law Commission report back in May 2014. Whatever one’s view of that report, the fact that it ran to nearly 300 pages—I am not sure how many people have got through it from beginning to end; I have started it on a number of occasions on trains—and had 3,000 submissions demonstrates a huge amount of complexity and detail. I will come back to how we respond to it, but as I read it, I found myself thinking about how it applied to my area. I am very grateful to several local people: Paul Bradley and Rashel Mohammed of the Cambridge Hackney Carriage Association, and David Wratten, who works for Cambridge City Licensed Taxis and represents the taxi drivers working from the station. As we begin to look at just one area, we realise how many different groups and interests there are within one trade.
The Local Government Association handbook advises councillors on how to deal with such issues. It runs to a full 60 pages and involves a lot of training. I am grateful to my councillors, Jeremy Benstead, Kevin Blencowe and Gerri Bird, for putting up with simplistic questions from me over the years as I try to understand the issues. I recommend that hon. Members go out with local taxi drivers to understand the job from their point of view and to see some of the problems they face on a daily basis. Many of us use taxis as passengers, but going out with the drivers and hearing them explain what they are up against is a very different thing. I am grateful, particularly to Paul and Rashel, who have taken me out on numerous occasions.
We have hackney carriages in Cambridge, but we do not hail them. It may be different in other places, but they all work from ranks and a lot of them are dual licensed, which causes total confusion in the minds of the public. People really do not understand the difference in a city such as Cambridge, and I think it might be similar in other places. We have a different set of distinctions from London. In many places the cap on numbers for taxis was lifted some years ago. I am pleased to say that the Labour council in Cambridge acted bravely. They went through the process of testing the market and reintroduced the cap a year or two ago, which has helped. We had a massive over-ranking problem, which is typical of historic cities. The problem is not completely solved, but the cap has helped. The problems that we still have are how to deal with basic technological things such as making sure the ranks are filled from feeder ranks.
Also, there is the problem, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), of cross-border issues when neighbouring authorities have different approaches to taxi licensing. That is not untypical. The Cambridge Labour authority takes a rigorous view. The councillors are very hands-on in their approach to managing appeals. However, neighbouring authorities take a different view, which creates a real problem when they are contiguous and we see large numbers of taxis coming in from other areas.
We have also had some self-inflicted problems. The Deregulation Act 2015 created additional problems. The idea that someone’s booking can be passed on to someone else might have seemed a good idea in terms of efficiency, but it means people do not know what they are getting. It is like going to a supermarket checkout with a box of Jaffa Cakes that gets substituted for an own brand and being told it is the same thing when it is not. People have told me that they have phoned up to get their taxi—or, in this case, their private hire vehicle—and then someone else has turned up, someone who they did not want to see turning up because they had had problems with them before. In a way, that has taken choice away from the consumer, and I am not sure that was what the Government intended.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North made strong points about the access issues and guide dogs. I have heard about heart-rending cases from people who have told me about disagreements they have had with taxi drivers who have not exactly welcomed them into their cab with either a guide dog or a wheelchair. As we have heard, progress has been made on that, but more needs to be done. Training is needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish tried to introduce a Bill in 2016 to make such training mandatory, so I hope the Government will come back to that.
Another set of issues raised with me around the country are the opaque set of charges for drivers using a rank at a railway station, supermarket, hospital or retail park. All those institutions are now trying to maximise the value of their assets. In the old days, railway stations were places for getting people around, but now they seem to be a source for raising funds. I have asked questions and I still have not had satisfactory answers. The issue is decidedly opaque and we need to make sure that such privileges are not being abused.
A huge range of issues needs to be tackled, as evidenced by the Law Commission report. We have seen the change in technology—I will not re-rehearse the arguments. I am not one of those opposed to changing technologies. Technology can be applied in the right way, as Gett and other applications have shown. I hope that in the future we will see such technology used in a transformational way for public transport, not just for taxis and private hire vehicles.
There are so many challenges, yet we still do not seem to have had a response from the Government. I really hope that at some point we will see a substantial piece of legislation introduced to deal with the issues. There is clearly a consensus around the idea of national standards to deal with the cross-border hiring issues. The Local Government Association, the all-party group and many others have called for that, and it was a manifesto promise from my party. It cannot be right that someone denied a licence in one area can turn up on the same streets within a few days, as we have seen in some places around the country, with a licence from somewhere else. That completely undercuts public confidence and frustrates local councillors, who feel they have no enforcement powers. We have to find a way forward. I hope I am not abusing the system, Mr Wilson, if I conclude by saying that I will be presenting a private Member’s Bill tomorrow, which I hope will tackle the issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I like this quote from GMB section secretary, Andy Peters:
“It appears that London has become the licensing centre to send London minicabs all over the UK rendering local councils redundant in taxi licensing.”
That about sums it up. In St Albans we have reliable and heavily regulated taxi licensing, but my local taxi drivers have said, “What is the point of being licensed with St Albans if TfL can license drivers?” TfL does not seem to have such high standards. We have heard from other speakers that if someone has lost their licence in one area, they will be denied a licence elsewhere. But it seems TfL is not so picky, because someone denied a licence in St Albans was told to try TfL, which is dreadful. The cost to register with TfL for a private hire driver’s licence is £250 plus a medical fee, and registering a vehicle costs an additional £100, so that is a total of £350. In St Albans, the cost to register for a private hire licence is £420.50 plus a medical fee, and registering a vehicle costs an additional £300, so that is £720.50 plus a medical fee. There is also a driver’s knowledge test, which is £95 for a first attempt and £64 thereafter.
It does not take a mathematician to work out that someone might as well hop down the road to London and get a TfL licence if there is no way of stopping drivers coming from there to St Albans, where our drivers are heavily regulated. St Albans drivers have told me that if they infringe their driving licence in any way, shape or form, the licensing authority jumps on them. If there is no point in having our licensing regulations, everybody might as well be licensed with TfL and then work all over the place.
It worries me enormously that when I talk to St Albans District Council, it says that although it is trying to work with London, TfL and Uber vehicles are allowed to come to the district to collect or drop off pre-booked jobs. My taxi drivers have shown me an app that shows where all the Uber cars are, and they are not simply dropping off in St Albans and heading back. They are stopping there. They come first thing in the morning and hover about until someone is looking to book a taxi. I told my local taxi drivers that the problem is young people saying, “I’ll get an Uber cab. It’s cheaper.” But it is cheaper because Uber is not obeying the rules. It is outside the licensing rules and touting for business. It claims to offer a journey within six minutes, but if the driver is supposed to be in London when they start a journey, they could not possibly be in St Albans in six minutes. They hover around in supermarkets and nearby roads and offer cheaper fares.
My council has stated:
“During enforcement checks any TFL or UBER vehicles that are found in the District without pre-booked jobs are advised to go back to the area that they are licensed. We have found that the amount of TFL and UBER vehicles...has declined”
when enforcement happens. That is the equivalent of swatting a fly off the rump of a horse. A taxi driver who is in the wrong area is simply asked to go back to where they are supposed to be. Nothing happens as a consequence, so they are all back within a few days. There are not enough licensing officers in St Albans, paid for by the heavy licensing fee, to ensure that we can keep those drivers out of the area. So we have a situation in which my local taxi drivers, many of whom are Bangladeshi, are faced with losing their livelihood.
There are big complaints when Tesco or other such companies move into areas and mop up all the trade. Local authorities can protect themselves from big rapacious companies that hoover up all the vacant premises and suppress other small operators in the area. It seems to me particularly poor form, then, that London can spew out licences and the taxi drivers can go off and, in effect, operate remotely. They are not obeying the spirit of the law, and they certainly have a detrimental impact on taxi facilities in areas such as mine. It worries me that local authorities that can stop numerous shop premises being turned into coffee shops because they think that would alter the area’s feel and offer, or deny Tesco a huge superstore because they feel it would draw trade from the city centre, cannot deny a fleet of rapacious Uber taxi drivers in my constituency the right to hover around in the car park, sucking the lifeblood from taxi services.
Maureen, who operates for Gold Line in St Albans, said to me much the same as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) has said: there should be strict rules that a job must be started in the area where a driver is licensed. There are obviously a lot of journeys from St Albans to Luton and Heathrow airports, and there is no thought of stopping people going out of area, but when a taxi driver turns up in an area and hovers about all day, that is completely outside the regulations that cover their licensed hire vehicle. I am told that operating outside the licensing provision also has the potential to negate their insurance, so young people who think getting into these cars is the cheap option might find, if they were in a car crash or some other kind of accident, that they were not insured.
Unite the union has spearheaded a cross-border taxi campaign against Uber. Frankly I do not care whether the firm concerned is Uber or anyone else. What I am saying is not anti-Uber; it is anti-unfairness in the taxi trade. As for just shooing away taxi drivers who are meant to be licensed and operating in a proper fashion but are found hovering where they are not supposed to be, no licensing authority in the country can afford to be shooing out Uber drivers full-time. If those drivers do not behave and Transport for London will not do anything about it, the Government need to do something. I ask the Minister to look at the matter as a serious issue of unfair business competition and health and safety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for doing so much hard work on the report. I also thank the Cardiff taxi drivers with whom I have worked for a number of years—particularly the members of Taxi Drivers Cardiff—and the GMB union. I draw attention to the relevant declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the GMB for raising these issues with me in the first place, and for working alongside me to get under the skin of what is going on.
At the root of the matter is the fact that drivers tell me they work all the hours God sends, but cannot make a decent living. That comes down to several factors, which break down into three areas. One is drivers’ experience with the companies they work for. Another is their experience of dealing with councils, as well as the resources available and the implementation of licensing regulations—but, fundamentally, it is about the powers that councils have. Although powers were recently devolved under the Wales Act 2017, we are dealing with the legacy of legislation that is well over 100 years old and takes us back to the 19th century. Clearly, that is not fit for purpose. The third factor is the wider regulatory environment.
I thank Dragon Veezu, which owns taxi firms across the country, for its willingness to engage. I criticised it in the House some time ago, and since that time we have had some positive and constructive engagement. I welcome the fact that it dealt with some of the charges and unfair fees that drivers faced, for example. A lot of progress is still required in that relationship, but at least we are having a dialogue and there is openness. I welcome that and hope that it will continue.
I am also pleased about the engagement that we have had with Cardiff Council in particular. I want to praise the new council leader, Huw Thomas, and the cabinet member, Michael Michael, for their willingness to put the creation of a fair playing field for the Cardiff taxi trade at the heart of their new “Capital Ambitions” document, which was published a couple of weeks ago. There will be a meeting with them shortly to discuss practical methods of implementation.
I also want to praise the Welsh Labour Government for opening up a consultation on the taxi trade in Wales, using their new powers. There have already been meetings between the Economy and Infrastructure Secretary Ken Skates and representatives of the GMB and others. I hope the Cabinet Secretary will listen to the debate, as many of the issues that are being raised are relevant in Wales.
There are four issues that I particularly want to highlight. First, the question of cross-border hires is clearly at the centre of the debate. Many people who have been licensed in neighbouring authorities, at lower standards, and often with lower insurance costs, come in and do all their work in Cardiff. Their cars can be seen parked in Cardiff every week. That is not supposed to be going on. Not only do they undercut the market in Cardiff, but the council often cannot enforce against them because of the regulations. Uber drivers also come in, perhaps using the TfL licences that have been referred to. I have even heard of Uber drivers being paid large sums up front to drive down from London and other cities to Cardiff, effectively to run a loss-making business and undercut the existing Cardiff trade. That is simply unacceptable, and it cannot go on.
The second issue is that it seems absurd not to be able to impose a cap on the number of private hire vehicles. That is clearly at the core of the matter. There is a cap on hackney drivers in Cardiff, but the number of private hire licences has continued to go up. It is simple economics—supply and demand. There are too many taxis in Cardiff, and the result is that each driver gets a much smaller part of the pie, so that they cannot get by on their daily wage.
Thirdly, on the question of a fair playing field, standards are not implemented fairly across authorities. A particular issue is safety glass in cars. Drivers in Cardiff are often asked to remove glass, at their own expense, whereas that is not required in neighbouring authorities.
The fourth issue is taxi companies dealing with such issues as account work and introducing a fair playing field. Those are the issues that drivers in Cardiff want to have addressed, and I hope that the Welsh Government and this Parliament will listen.
This is a hot-button issue for many of my constituents, and it will continue to be so, as it was during the general election campaign, until we sort out a basic framework of fair competition. In my view that would include the capping and regulation of taxis in London, which has been mentioned, the powers afforded to the Mayor of London, and wider issues to do with cross-border hiring and minimum standards across the sector.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing the debate and on all his hard work on the matter since he was elected. Like him, I have many constituents who are black cab drivers, and there is frustration about the effects of deregulation and the lack of effective licensing. There are implications for passenger safety in this city and across the country. There has been a dramatic effect on the livelihoods of many of my constituents and their families. Many cab drivers I know have had their income slashed in the past few years, and many are considering leaving the trade for good. That is tragic for some of the most qualified taxi drivers on the planet, and for the iconic black hackney carriage in this city. This is a big debate.
One point in the introduction to my hon. Friend’s report that is worth mentioning is that there is a tendency to simplify the debate as being about the past versus the future and innovation. In my experience that is not the case. The cab drivers I know and represent have not been afraid of technology or innovation. On the contrary, they have embraced it, but there is a need for a fair, level playing field. Technological innovations cannot be used to destroy drivers’ conditions and residents’ protections. Moreover, big multinational companies cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over our democracy and to undermine, through lobbying and personal connections, attempts to create minimum standards and effective protections in cities such as London.
I want to make three basic points, which have been made earlier and will no doubt be made in the Front-Bench speeches. The first is about the number of minicabs in the capital, and the implications for congestion and pollution. As we have heard, it is estimated that in seven years the number of private hire car drivers has doubled to 120,000. As things stand, TfL is legally obliged to issue a licence to any driver who meets the criteria. We should put a cap on that.
That leads to my second point, about the general licensing environment. The simple reality is that drivers can dodge areas with more robust licensing by gaining a licence from an authority with weaker regulations. So standards designed to keep residents safe are being dodged through the avoidance of other licensing regimes. Minicab drivers should not be able consciously to acquire licences in areas with less stringent conditions.
On the more specific question of cross-border hiring, private hire vehicles are currently not restricted from taking bookings anywhere in England and Wales, provided that the vehicle driver and operator are licensed by the same licensing authority and the booking is accepted within that authority. There is little that licensing authorities can do about drivers who work outside the area for which they are licensed. The obvious question is how licensing authorities can effectively regulate and enforce private hire activity in the areas in question. They cannot. As we have heard, a significant number of London-licensed private hire vehicles appear to be working solely in areas outside the capital, so there appears to be a clear need for the Government to legislate to create a statutory definition of cross-border hiring. Should a journey have to begin or end in the licensing authority area where the licence was issued? That appears to me a pretty sensible suggestion. It would allow flexibility for private hire operators to fulfil passenger requests.
My final point is about national minimum licensing standards. The problems associated with cross-border hiring are linked with variations in licensing standards across the country. In some areas, drivers do not need even a Disclosure and Barring Service check to receive a licence, so drivers are not necessarily screened for criminal convictions before being allowed to carry passengers. Surely we need new minimum licensing standards for all licensing authorities to impose.
Overall, the proposed reforms are pragmatic and sensible. I very much welcome them and support the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North and the coalition that he has assembled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson; I think this is the first time that I have done so. It is probably good news for you and others that I will not take up too much time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on introducing the debate, on the sterling work that he has clearly done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on taxis and on producing the report. He started today by saying how iconic the black hackney carriage is in its association with London. I certainly concur with that. When I was growing up, my dad’s aunt stayed just outside London, and we certainly associated the hackney carriage with London. The training and knowledge that these drivers have has been well documented in TV series, documentaries and so on.
It does seem a wee bit ironic that at the same time, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Transport for London is clearly undercutting other taxi services around the country in terms of the licences they are issuing. As we heard from the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), that is having a real impact on drivers in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) touched on the fact that taxi operation varies from area to area and from country to country. Where I stay, my experience of taxis is that passengers phone local private hire companies; in my licensing area, people are not allowed to flag down vehicles. That makes it harder for unlicensed operators to operate, and it makes the whole start-or-finish issue or cross-border issue a bit more difficult. I am fortunate because I know all the local taxi drivers. I can phone the company and say “It’s Alan. I want to go to x, y or z.” I do not even have to give full details of the address. I can take my pet dog in the car; that is not a problem. That is in stark contrast to the experiences of people who rely on their guide dog because of mobility issues. We have heard about the unsatisfactory experience of people not being able to get their guide dog in cars. I certainly support the call for equality training to ensure that people are not effectively discriminated against, which would be under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
That brings us full circle. It is really important that we do not have a race to the bottom, which is the concern that we have now about Uber and how it operates. The hon. Member for St Albans said that she does not care whether it is Uber or whatever; the bottom line is that there is an issue that we need to address. In Scotland, Uber operates only in Glasgow and Edinburgh; it certainly does not operate in my area, so it is not the same issue as we face here. Clearly, that company has a model, and once it undercuts people and puts other drivers out of business, it will continue to expand that model elsewhere. As I said, we cannot have a race to the bottom. We have heard about insurance issues. Clearly, some people are getting into these cars and do not understand the wider implications. Yes, they might save a few pennies, but it could cost them in the long run.
The key theme that came out in the debate was that the existing legislation is outdated. I have just touched on the DDA. I agree that there should be penalties for abuse of taxi drivers; they need more protection. Another good point made by the hon. Member for Ilford North was about providing assistance for taxi drivers to upgrade their cars, particularly given air pollution issues. The Government have still to respond to the air pollution case. They have lost three times in the High Court now; they cannot afford to lose in the High Court again. I think that further grant assistance must be given for the upgrading of black cabs, particularly in London. I will throw out one further thing to the Minister. Previously, there was a grant system for conversion to liquefied petroleum gas. I do not think that is available any more, but it is a good interim step towards reducing emissions before we get to zero-carbon transport, so I ask the Government to think again about LPG.
In Scotland, the Scottish National party Government have already made changes to licensing, under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. The process began in 2012-13, but even by the time the legislation was going through Parliament, in 2015, it was already recognised that it had not kept pace with technology and the apps system that is now used for taxi drivers. The SNP Government have therefore pledged to review it and bring in changes accordingly. I urge the UK Government to think likewise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to speak in this important debate on the future of the taxi trade. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing it. I also congratulate him and the all-party parliamentary group on taxis on publishing the report, “Lessons from London: The future of the UK taxi trade”.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my membership of the GMB, which organises in this area.
As has been mentioned, all too often debates about the taxi trade in the past have been wrongly framed as innovation versus tradition. It is not the case that there is a trade-off between innovations that improve the taxi trade and regulations that provide protections to the existing trade and deliver improved safety and accessibility for passengers. Sadly, however, the Government’s hands-off approach to taxis and private hire vehicles means that in too many areas we are seeing a race to the bottom on quality, accessibility and, perhaps most worryingly of all, safety.
As technology and the industry have evolved, our regulation of the taxi and private hire industry has failed to keep pace. To address that, the Law Commission published recommendations and a draft Bill in May 2014. The commission recommended significant regulatory changes. The report found that the
“balance struck between national and local rules lacks an overarching rationale, resulting in duplication, inconsistencies and considerable difficulties in cross-border enforcement...The outdated legislative framework has become too extensive in some respects, imposing unnecessary burdens on business and artificially restricting the range of services available to consumers; and insufficiently comprehensive in other ways, undermining the fundamental goal of protecting the travelling public.”
The Government have not responded to that report to date. I ask the Minister when he intends to do so, or whether the Government ever intend to respond. We are now at the point at which the Government risk waiting so long to respond that elements of the Law Commission’s work become outdated, and at present the Government have no plans to introduce a taxis Bill.
One significant challenge facing the taxi trade that has yet to be addressed by Ministers is cross-border working by private hire vehicles. There have been increasing concerns about private hire vehicles operating outside their licensed geographical areas. We have heard about that practice in this debate. It puts taxis at a competitive disadvantage, as they have to return to their licensed area after taking a fare outside their borough, unlike private hire vehicles, and some councils in this country hand out too many licences, clogging up the streets and worsening congestion and air quality. Because of the lack of national standards, there are implications for quality, safety and accessibility, which cross-border licensing undermines.
If a private hire driver has obtained a licence by having to pass a local knowledge test in one area, but primarily operates elsewhere, there is no guarantee that they will know the local roads well. There is almost no way a potential customer can know that at the time of booking. The implications for safety are worrying. Local authorities are currently permitted to set their own “fit and proper” criteria for licensing; there is no minimum national standard. Private hire drivers are therefore able to operate in an area with stringent safety criteria, but can legally fail to meet those criteria by obtaining a licence elsewhere. Concerns have been raised about that occurring in Rotherham and Oxford, where strict safety measures were put in place following instances of child sexual exploitation.
The questions of what steps should be taken to ensure passenger safety and how to prevent sexual assaults should not be for each licensing authority to decide, but should be decided at national level on the basis of what regulations would best protect passengers. Rather than addressing the problem, measures in the Government’s Deregulation Act 2015 permitting subcontracting have made the situation worse. Those make enforcement by local licensing authorities more difficult, in addition to stripping customers of their right to choose which operator they wish to travel with. I therefore ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to combat the problems associated with cross-border working. One obvious measure to mitigate the problem would be the introduction of national standards for licensing authorities—something that the Labour party has repeatedly called for. Will the Minister now commit to introducing such standards? The Government have previously stated that many of these issues should be the responsibility of licensing authorities, but issues such as disabled access and safety standards should not be at the discretion of localities, varying greatly across the country.
While the industry has changed significantly throughout the years, and continues to do so, increasingly spurred on through technological change, legislation has not. As a consequence, the distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles is increasingly confused, in part because of the imprecise concept of plying for hire, which is not defined in statute. The Law Commission’s 2014 report supported this distinction remaining in place; however, we have seen a growing number of apps, such as Uber, that allow users to see the position of available vehicles at any particular moment—in effect, virtually plying for hire. The result has been a reduction in the number of people taking the geographical training for licensed taxi drivers.
The former Mayor of London identified the need for action and planned to introduce a minimum five-minute wait for customers requesting a car and beginning a journey. That was motivated by concerns about the impact that Uber’s business model has had on the city, including Uber’s contribution to rising congestion. Those plans were abandoned, reportedly after intense lobbying by the then Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. As reported in the Daily Mail, the then Prime Minister and Chancellor enjoyed close relationships with Uber and were hostile to the idea that the company should be subject to further regulation. The advent of smartphone apps is changing the industry and presents many clear benefits to passengers, but companies such as Uber can enjoy unfair competitive advantages because they do not have to follow the same regulation and compliance as incumbent businesses. The current Mayor of London has committed to supporting a legal definition of plying for hire, and the Law Commission supports a statutory definition of pre-booking. I hope the Government are no longer acting as a paid lobbyist for Uber, and that the Minister will today outline what steps he intends to take to ensure a level playing field between operators.
Everyone in this room wants to see the future of the taxi trade, and indeed the private hire industry, accessible to all. It should therefore concern us all that 42% of assistance dog owners were refused a journey by a taxi or private hire vehicle, despite that being illegal. That has a devastating impact on the confidence and independence of disabled people, and I would like to praise the work of Guide Dogs on this issue. Will the Minister commit to mandatory disability equality training for all taxi and private hire vehicle drivers?
Finally, we have seen real progress in London towards zero emission vehicles. What steps will the Minister take to secure a greener trade across the whole country in future?
Prejudice gets a worse name than it deserves. Burke said that prejudice
“engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved.”
I seek, I strive, I emule to little more than to match the prejudice of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, in his advocacy of the importance of London black cabs. They add quality to our kingdom and are symptomatic of the best of British and emblematic of its capital’s character. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that in anything I subsequently say that is my starting point. We can be proud of our London cabs and should be hesitant about anything that endangers their future, which is certainly not the Government’s intention.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that in recent years the taxi and private car hire market has experienced very significant change. That has been particularly true in our capital city. My suspicion is that it is not the end of a process but the beginning. I suspect that we will see continuing change as the ways in which people communicate and acquire services change. He said that it was important not to be stuck in the past. I spend a good deal of my life wishing that I could be, only to be dragged to the present by imperatives and drawn to the future, seduced by the promise of improvement and opportunity. Nevertheless, it is right to say that, whether we like it or not, changing communications are likely to mean that the services provided to us—in this case, by private hire vehicles and taxis—will change too. That does not mean that we should allow ourselves to be seduced—to use the word a second time in a short debate—by the Whiggish idea of progress. It is not true that all technological change is beneficial, and it is not true that all the alterations that the hon. Gentleman set out are likely to add to the quality of what is provided to people in London and elsewhere.
Let me now address some of the specifics in the excellent all-party group report and congratulate the whole of that group on producing it. It is clear to me that we share a common aim: open, safe and fair competition in the taxi and private hire car market. There will be a debate—a proper discussion—about how we can achieve that objective, but it is one to which we can all sign up. I am reassured that in the report there is an appetite to continue to encourage the best of the trade and to seek out ways to improve what is not as good as it should be.
As the hon. Gentleman argued, the Government are responsible for the legislative framework within which licensing authorities set their own standards and requirements, so have an important role to play, but those licensing authorities must play their part too. I will come back to that point, which was raised by the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) when he spoke of inconsistencies, and by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main).
Obviously, that is the case; however, the Minister is aware that the law in this area dates back almost 170 years—some of it is under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. Given that the Welsh Labour Government are now looking at introducing new legislation to deal with many of the issues we have discussed today, will the Minister make a similar commitment on the UK Government’s behalf?
Most of what inspires me goes back to the time of Jesus Christ, so I do not think the fact that something goes back a long way is necessarily indicative that it is inappropriate, but I certainly want to make sure that it is fit for purpose. Part of the job of government is to make sure that the legislative framework that we operate in is suitable for the changing circumstances, as I described. If they are as dynamic as the hon. Member for Ilford North and I suggest, we certainly need to review these matters regularly and thoroughly. He is right that in the light of that changing landscape, we need to look at such things closely.
I am aware of the changing landscape of the taxi and private hire market, and the impact that changes in the way people engage services have for the public and on traditional business models, which, in my own use of taxis, I personally prefer. It is right that we address some of the specific issues raised in the report, and I shall try to do that in the short time available to me. Having said all that, using an app to request a taxi or a private hire vehicle is increasingly popular with the public and has the potential to change the structure of the market significantly. There is a taste for a certain kind of access to a certain kind of vehicle. That is an undeniable fact. I see it among people I know—friends and others—although personally, I prefer to hail a taxi. I like the theatre of that, as well as the quality that it ends in, but that is not the way that everybody goes about their lives and business, and we have to face that reality. Given that appetite, the important thing is that we are mindful of the disadvantages that it might bring too.
It is the case that in addition to accepting pre-booked journeys, taxi drivers have the exclusive right to ply for hire in the area in which they are licensed. This is the fundamental difference in the licensing of taxis and private hire vehicles, and underpins the requirement for taxi drivers to have the geographical knowledge that is indicated, in London at least, by the knowledge—the acquisition of detailed understanding of the character and geography of our city.
The all-party parliamentary group recommends that the Government introduce a legally enforceable statutory definition of plying for hire. That will, of course, be considered, but the Law Commission’s view was that it was not practical to define plying for hire:
“No statutory list of factors could be sufficiently determinative to give clear guidance, leaving many of the current grey areas unresolved.”
I welcome the recent efforts of Transport for London to ensure that competition within the taxi and private hire market is fair. Private hire vehicles do not have the hard-earned right to ply for hire, and I wholeheartedly endorse action against those who break the law. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Transport for London has quadrupled the number of dedicated compliance officers on the street, meaning that there are now more than 250. Not only do those enforcement officers ensure fair play among legitimate parties, they play a vital role in preventing unlicensed, unvetted, uninsured and unsafe drivers and vehicles from circumventing the regulations and stealing business from the legitimate trade.
Yes, that is true; my hon. Friend makes a valid point about the scope and powers of those missioned with doing what I described. I am certainly prepared to consider both of those things in direct response to this debate. If these debates are to be meaningful, they must take policy further forward; they must not simply be repetition of the status quo or an opportunity for Ministers to read out speeches written for them by other people. We will certainly consider those matters particularly.
Clearly, we place premium importance on passenger safety, and points have been made about that; again, I will re-examine those matters in some detail. The Department has undertaken to monitor the adoption of the recommendations made in the statutory guidance, and I assure all here today that I will give the matter my personal attention. I will be judged on what I do, rather than what I say, so I serve notice on all taxi and PHV licensing authorities that I will be asking those that do not adopt the recommendations made as a result of consultation and engagement why not and for what reasons. I will write to all licensing authorities accordingly as a result of this brief debate.
A point was made about access for disabled people. That point has been raised previously, and I return to it—indeed, I had a discussion this morning with the Minister responsible in my Department about this very subject. We want to say more about it quickly, and we will do so; we have been considering it for some time, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) will know. Again, we have been partly catalysed by the fresh opportunity that this debate gives us to consider these matters.
The other thing that I commit to is further discussion with the all-party group. I invite the hon. Member for Ilford North to come to my Department to explore each of the detailed recommendations in the report. Time does not permit me to go into them now, but I am happy to have a dialogue with him to see what more can be done. By the way, there are some contentious things in the report. I do not want to give the impression that I have read it assuming that it is all fine and dandy. The issue of the difference between licensed vehicles and licensed drivers is—I say this in the kindest, most general way possible—fudged in the report, and we need to explore it. To say that there were 88,000 vehicle licences and 120 licences issued to people is a slight misrepresentation of the facts. I could go on; there is the effect on congestion as well. Light goods vehicles and other vehicles may well do more damage in terms of congestion than the growing number of private hire vehicles, and we need to explore that. However, the report is a useful and valuable contribution to the debate, and we will discuss it and be inspired by much of what it says.
In addition to all of that, there is more work to be done. I have established a working party to look at licensing, and I am extremely keen to deal with the inconsistencies across licensing authorities. There is a strong case for considering the cross-border issues; they are not straightforward, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but we must consider them closely. As I have mentioned, I am keen to move forward on accessibility and how disabled people must sometimes, for example, endure drivers not being prepared to take guide dogs in taxis. That is not acceptable, and it cannot be allowed to continue. The checks put in place by licensing authorities must be thorough and consistent to ensure safety.
I have repeatedly stressed my admiration for black cabs, but I hope also to recognise that it is a dynamic marketplace where technology has changed, and I will continue to do so. To return to the fundamental message that I want to articulate in this short debate, it is important that the framework that we have put in place is fit for purpose, recognises those changes and preserves the best of what we have now.
There will be a working party, consideration of licensing and cross-border issues, and an urgent meeting with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the report. I am prepared to go further and meet the Mayor of London, representatives of the London taxi trade and, of course, Uber. Devising a plan for the future will require us all to work together for the common good.
I started with Burke, so I will end with Disraeli, who said:
“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.”
My purpose is to get this right, not for its own sake but for the effect that it has on all those who work in the industry and all those who use taxis and private hire vehicles. Our responsibility—indeed, I go further—our duty is to ensure that that is done thoughtfully, carefully and effectively. In securing this debate, the hon. Gentleman has aided that purpose.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. Having listened to others’ remarks, I am minded to draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank all members of the all-party parliamentary group on taxis, the secretariat for their hard work and the sponsors, Gett, mytaxi and the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, which are reflected in our group register, for making all the work possible.
I am grateful to the Minister for how he summed up and responded to the debate. All that we can ever hope for as Back Benchers putting the case to Government on various issues is open minds and open doors. I am glad that he has offered both open-mindedness to the range of issues presented and the various challenges of solving those problems and, most importantly, an open door to discuss each of the recommendations, as he has generously offered, so that we can feed back to the thousands of drivers across the country who are following the issue. Of all the issues that I hear about as a constituency MP, there is more, and more consistent, engagement among members of the public on this issue than on any other. As the Minister acknowledged, the drivers whom I represent are more interested in what will be done; I hope that in the autumn, we will start to see some progress. I am glad that work is under way in the Department to secure progress.
I am reflecting on this debate. One ongoing concern that is still with the courts is working conditions and rights for taxi and private hire drivers. We touched on it to some degree—
I know that the hon. Gentleman has only a few seconds left. The Taylor review has just been published, and we will consider how it applies to the sector. That is specifically why I set up the second working party. I do not want to pre-judge the courts, but I assure him of that.
I agree. Similarly, we did not want to pre-judge the courts when we did our work. I am none the less glad that GMB is pursuing a test case in the courts about the legal status of many private hire drivers. Self-employment is a great thing; exploitation of self-employment rules by private operators is something else entirely. That is where the tension lies.
With just a few seconds left, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. I look forward to meeting the Minister, and I know that my constituents will be glad to hear about progress thereafter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the taxi trade.