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Licensing of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill

Volume 635: debated on Friday 2 February 2018

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am sure that many hon. Members have heard from taxi and private hire drivers about the issues the trade faces, as well as from passengers, trade unions, disability and safety campaigners, and councillors because the trade faces enormous challenges, particularly with changing technologies. The Bill focuses solely on passenger safety. We need a solution that respects local contexts and local decisions. With nearly 360,000 licensed taxi and private hire drivers in the UK, we need to better equip enforcement officers to regulate the trade and improve safety standards. Let me first present the problem, and then I will explain how the Bill will work to solve it.

We have seen some high-profile cases in which drivers have used taxis or private hire vehicles to abuse vulnerable people. In areas where this has happened, it has led to local authorities adopting high standards and refusing licences to those who do not meet them. Under the current system, however, there is nothing to stop individuals applying to a local authority with lower standards, being granted a licence and then working in the area where they had been refused a licence. Councils have revoked the licences of drivers only to find that they go elsewhere, get a licence from another authority and are back working the same streets, sometimes within days. That cannot be right. The local authority with lower standards has no way of knowing about previous refusals, if the driver in question does not choose to tell them. Ultimately, this leaves all of us exposed to harm and deprives local authorities of control over their own streets.

Given the time constraints, I will not go into the detail of such cases, but some notorious ones in Southend, for example, have hit the national headlines.

We now come to the second part of the problem I seek to address. Local council enforcement officers can enforce only against those who are licensed in their own local authority. This means not only that drivers trying to game the system can work where they please, but that they are too often exempt from many enforcement powers. The system renders responsible councils trying to tackle problems in their areas helpless in the face of drivers coming from outside and operating under lower standards.

Erewash Borough Council gives out licences to one lot of taxi drivers and Broxtowe Borough Council gives out licences to another lot, while the car park for Ilkeston station is in Broxtowe and the taxis drop people off in Erewash. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill will help to solve the problem of ensuring that everyone meets high standards in such a situation?

The hon. Lady is exactly right that that is the problem we are trying to address.

The Bill will give councils the tools they need to better protect passengers using taxis and private hire vehicles in their areas. It requires licensing authorities to record licence refusals, revocations and suspensions on a national database. Currently, there is no system that centrally records this information. When processing applications, licensing authorities will be required to check the register and to have regard to any previous decisions recorded before awarding licences. This will stop drivers who are gaming the system, and prevent them, if refused a licence in one authority, from just crossing a border into a more lenient area and obtaining a licence there instead, while maintaining the intention to work in the area that refused them.

I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend’s Bill. I am conscious of the time pressure, but let me say that I have worked very closely with taxi drivers in Cardiff and with the GMB on addressing these issues. This is a crucial part of the cross-border debate, which I am sure he agrees goes much wider. Does he agree that it is excellent that the Welsh Labour Government are looking at these issues in the context of the new devolved powers that they will have in Wales?

My hon. Friend is right, and it will be very interesting to see what the Welsh Government come up with.

As I was saying, the second authority must have regard to the decision of the first, and come to a reasoned decision on whether to license a driver.

The second part of the Bill allows local authority enforcement teams to report instances of wrongdoing by taxi and private hire drivers that cause them concern to the authority in which the offender is licensed. The licensing authority must then have regard to such a report and respond. This duty to have regard can be challenged in court, which is important because this will help to drive up standards across the country and end the frustration of local drivers seeing others in their community working to lower standards, when higher standards have—for good reason—been set through local discussion. We owe it to the trade to assure drivers that their peers are indeed fit and proper, and worthy of licensing. This Bill will raise standards and public trust, and improve the industry.

More can be done on taxi and private hire policy. I believe that a substantial overhaul is needed, and I hope it will be done in future by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench as part of a Labour Government. National minimum standards for drivers, vehicles and operators that can be built on to meet local requirements are required, as are national enforcement powers and further work on issues beyond safety. I hope that the Minister sees the importance of this issue and commits to further legislative work on taxis and private hire vehicles. Time is tight, so I will conclude, but I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support this Bill, help to improve it further in Committee and stand up for all the drivers and passengers in our constituencies who will be helped by its success.

I rise to commend the Bill to the House. It would do an excellent thing. In my constituency I have drivers licensed by both East Lindsey District Council and Boston Borough Council, and the idea that drivers never stray from one area to another is ridiculous.

I wish to make a broader point, which is that the history of the licensing regime goes back to an era when private hire vehicles of any sort were unlikely to go outside their own area. That is hugely outdated and anachronistic in the modern age. The idea of a national database is now a relatively simple proposal, and it is just one of the Bill’s merits. When private hire arrangements were first brought about, the idea of a national database was unthinkable. What strikes me about the Bill is that it is probably the first of several cases in which we could think about how to do things in a far more efficient and sensible way and bring about real improvements in public safety or other areas for relatively little cost and with relatively enormous benefits. I know that the Minister will look at that, but the Government should consider more broadly the opportunities to replicate such an arrangement. It is a positive thing that the Government have supported the Bill.

In any national database, the security of the information must be paramount, and I know that the Minister will look at how that should be implemented and at all those considerations. In the age of Google, Facebook, social media, Matt Hancock the app and all that, we have to bear it in mind that we should not rush towards something because it is obviously a very good thing and in the meantime lose sight of security considerations.

With that caveat, I commend the Bill to the House. I will certainly support it; it does something that I hope will be simple enough to make happen relatively quickly.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for offering us the opportunity to discuss this important and timely question. I am pleased that the Bill has come out of a wide-ranging consultation process. It is the product of discussions with local authorities, trade unions, the Local Government Association and central Government, and I am gratified that there has been such a diversity of input. I am also especially grateful to my hon. Friend for taking the time to meet representatives from the third sector, including Guide Dogs and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. As such it is really pleasing to hear that this consultation process has identified a clear commitment across the industry to raising standards and enhancing safeguarding frameworks.

Under current frameworks, unscrupulous drivers have an open pathway to game the system. I should be clear that I am not necessarily criticising the second licensing authority in such instances. Beyond the licensing question, moreover, there is a lack of empowerment for enforcement officers, who currently can enforce only against drivers licensed by their own local authority. In general, then, the current system fails responsible councils and law enforcement teams seeking to tackle abuses in their local areas. It also fails an industry that seeks to operate to the highest possible standards.

I note the time. I am satisfied with the second part of the Bill, which would allow local enforcement teams to report to the licensing authority. This form of collaborative cross-border work would build on what we know is already very positive in the sector.

In all this, then, the Bill would support councils to do their job and would not remove any powers from them. Rather, it would enhance their ability to employ existing powers. It would not discriminate unfairly against drivers. It would allow them, for example, the potential of a second chance to reapply for a licence in the neighbouring authority. This is a high-quality piece of legislation fit for the 21st century so it is my pleasure to support it.

I have several concerns about the Bill. As with many Bills that were drafted with good intentions, the proposed remedy is disproportionate to the problem. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) accepts in his explanatory notes to the Bill that to obtain a licence to drive private hire vehicles or taxis, people have to show that they are of good character and that they are fit and proper persons. I have no problem with that, and I would have no problem with requiring all 293 licensing authorities to use the same test to ensure that an applicant was a fit and proper person and had not been ruled out by another licensing authority.

The key to my concern is apparent in the long title, which talks about making

“provision about the exercise of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing functions in relation to persons about whom there are safeguarding or road safety concerns”.

What do we mean by “concerns”? Concerns may be irrational. The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) has been waiting for three months to find out the nature of the concerns about his conduct. Would the Bill prevent him from applying for a private hire licence?

Clause 1 states:

“In this Act “relevant information”, in relation to a person, means information indicating that the person…has committed a sexual offence.”

“Indicating” is a very weak word; if the word was “proving” or “showing”, I would be much happier. Why should the relevant information include an indication that that person has committed a sexual offence, when that can be established without any difficulty?

Then we get on to an indication that an applicant “has harassed another person”. That is incredibly wide, and we are not talking about a court appearance or any sort of offence. It means that somebody simply could allege to the licensing authority that they or somebody else had been harassed by the applicant. That licensing authority and others could use that indication as grounds for refusing the applicant a licence, thereby preventing him from becoming, or continuing as, a taxi driver or private hire driver. We are talking about depriving licensed drivers of their livelihood or preventing others from taking up the profession. If we are going to introduce a rule book, it needs to contain rules rather than rumour or smear. I would be interested to hear the hon. Member for Cambridge explain why he has chosen to use such a wide expression.

I am equally unhappy about clause 1(1)(c), which concerns an indication that an applicant

“has caused physical or psychological harm to another person”.

What will be the test for that? There is no requirement for it to be proven, either beyond reasonable doubt or on the balance of probabilities; there simply has to be an indication that it has happened. An indication can come from someone who makes an anonymous telephone call. That is open to massive abuse by people who, for reasons best known to themselves, may have a grudge against somebody who is already a taxi driver or licensed private hire vehicle driver, or they may wish somebody else not to come into that competitive profession. That provision really must be tightened up if the Bill is to get on to the statute book.

We then get to clause 1(1)(d). The “relevant information” would be an indication that a person

“has committed an offence that involves a risk of causing physical or psychological harm to another person (whether or not the person was charged with, prosecuted for or convicted of the offence)”.

That is so widely drawn as to be downright oppressive. Why do we need to include that in the Bill at all? An indication that a person “has committed an offence”—I think there should be proof that they have. It goes on to say that the consequence of that offence involves not actual physical or psychological harm, but a risk of physical or psychological harm. That is so ludicrously widely drawn that is unfit to be the subject of legislation in this place.

Clause 1(1)(e) is equally wide. There has to be an indication that somebody

“has done anything that, for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, constitutes unlawful discrimination against”

someone. If there has been “unlawful discrimination” in breach of the Equality Act, let it be established, but let us not have a smear that something may have happened or that there is an indication that it happened. Let us require proof of all this before we take away the livelihood of a driver or deprive somebody else of the ability to become one.

Clause 1(1)(f) talks about an indication that a person

“has threatened, abused or insulted another person”.

I think that would rule out anybody who has been in the Whips Office, either in opposition or government. I speak as somebody who has never been granted such a privilege, but what person who has served in the Whips Office can say hand on heart that they have never threatened, abused or insulted another person?

Order. I think we are drifting a bit from where we should be in talking about the Whips Office. I do not want to concentrate too much on the Whips. They are getting rather perplexed down here.

I will not press the point about the Whips, because there is actually no requirement of proof. All one needs is an indication.

My hon. Friend is making some very relevant points, but they might, of course, be raised about an individual licensing authority. What this Bill does is provide an opportunity to tidy that up and provide a national structure that fixes the problems that he is talking about. I wonder whether he is actually making an application to serve on the Bill Committee.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am assiduous in my membership of Committees—I think I am a member of five Select Committees at the moment—so I am happy to take on additional responsibilities and burdens. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I think that he misunderstands the Bill. We are not talking about a national system, although there might be good arguments for introducing a national system, so that somebody who was licensed to be a taxi driver or a private hire vehicle driver in London could also be such a person in Christchurch, or vice versa.

The Bill, however, says that if the licensing committee in one local authority decides that there is an indication that someone

“has caused physical or psychological harm to another person”,

that indication, which is then used by that local authority to deprive the person who has caused the harm of the right to keep or obtain such a licence, must be transferred to another authority and could be used as evidence in that other authority against a similar application, although the raw material on the basis of which the conclusion was reached may not also be transferred.

There may well be a strong case for a national licensing system in the context of the Bill, although in my experience small councils—and I speak as a great defender of a small council, Christchurch Borough Council—are very jealous of their right to have licensing regimes, whether for taxis and private hire vehicles or for other purposes linked to their particular circumstances.

Clause 1(1) refers to

“relevant information…indicating that the person…poses a risk to road safety when driving”.

As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, this is a subject close to my heart, because I used to be a Minister for road safety. When I looked at the explanatory notes, it became clear to me that someone who had convictions for speeding or careless driving would not be regarded as posing a risk to road safety. Why not? We must not belittle the offence of driving with excess speed. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Cambridge, like me, has the privilege of being a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, but he will know that members of the institute must declare every year whether or not they have been convicted of a driving offence, which includes speeding. Why should the Bill provide a relaxed test in relation to such behaviour by someone who wishes to be a professional driver, while saying that if there is an indication that that person may have caused psychological harm to another person—although not proven—that will count against him or her?

Clause 1(1)(h) refers to another test of “relevant information”: an indication that the person concerned

“may be unsuitable to hold a driver’s licence for other reasons relating to…the safeguarding of passengers, or…road safety.”

So the clause is a catch-all. There would be no protection under the rule of law for anyone who made an application. They would be vulnerable to prejudice, petty vendettas and all the rest of it. It seems to me that the core of the Bill, which is contained in clause 1, is fundamentally flawed. It moves a million miles away from the current provision that if someone can establish that he or she is a fit and proper person, he or she can, prima facie, become a licensed driver.

Clause 1(2) states:

“A reference in subsection (1) to an offence includes a reference to the following offences”.

I have no problem with attempts to commit offences, conspiracies to commit offences, aiding and abetting, or incitement, which are listed in that subsection. I do, however, have a strong objection to clause 1(3), which states:

“A reference in subsection (1) to an offence (including a reference having effect by virtue of subsection (2)) includes a reference to conduct that would have constituted the offence if it had been done in England and Wales.”

In other words, we are not talking about offences; we are talking about conduct that could, if there had been a prosecution, have amounted to an offence. How oppressive is that? It strikes me as incredibly oppressive and potentially unfair and unjust.

Clause 1(4) gives definitions of “sexual offence”; you may be pleased to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have no objection to that part of the clause. However, we then get on to clause 2, which would set up a new licensing information database. I do not know the extent to which that would be compliant with the Data Protection Act 1998, but it would basically mean that false information provided to one licensing authority on the basis of which that licensing authority has refused somebody a licence can then be transferred—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 26 October.