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Taxi and Private Hire Licensing Reform

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 3 October 2019

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

As a member of the all-party group on taxis, I am delighted to see you in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that many of the themes and issues that I raise will be of enormous interest to you as a constituency MP and neighbour, as well as being in the Chair in your usual fair-handed and fair-minded way.

It is a matter of some regret that I need to stand up once again and make the case to the Government about the urgent need for reform of our taxi and private hire licensing laws. I think we are now on our third Minister since I first raised these issues and founded the all-party group, and I pay enormous tribute to the two former Ministers with whom I had the pleasure of dealing—the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who remains in the Department but has moved to other matters. I hope that we will get an open mind and a fair ear from the new team, which I am sure will be the case when the Minister replies.

There is enormous consensus about the need for reform and about the kinds of reforms that must take place. Some years have passed since the all-party group published “Lessons from London: the future of the UK taxi trade”, which made a number of recommendations to the Government and set out the compelling case for change. That led the Department for Transport to commission its own task and finish group to look independently at those issues.

I commend to the House the excellent report, “Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Licensing: steps towards a safer and more robust system”. It was produced by Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq, who I am delighted has joined us and is watching our proceedings in the House today. In his foreword to the report, he said:

“It is clear that the status quo whereby taxi and PHV licensing is inconsistent, ineffective and incompatible with the protection of vulnerable people must not be allowed to continue. Alongside other incidents of criminality, the events in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and elsewhere have brought the fundamental flaws in the licensing regime into the sharpest possible focus; these oblige uncompromising determination to make taxis and PHVs safe for all.”

Many of the recommendations in his report to the Department for Transport echo those made on a cross-party basis by the all-party group. They include the need for national minimum standards, so that any passenger in any part of the country can get into a taxi or minicab, safe in the knowledge that the laws and safety regulations governing their journey will keep them safe wherever they travel and in whatever type of vehicle.

It was acknowledged that we have a ridiculous patchwork quilt of varying standards and regulations across the country that national minimum standards would help to reinforce. It has also been recognised that in some places, often for tragic reasons, licensing authorities have gone further, as Rotherham Council did following the appalling role that the local minicab industry played in the terrible sexual abuse and exploitation of young women in that town.

It was acknowledged, from the work we did on the all-party parliamentary group and in the working group, that too many drivers and operators are flouting the rules, taking advantage of loopholes in the law and the patchwork quilt of safety regulations that exist to get their vehicles licensed in authorities with much less stringent safety regulations to undercut the more robust regulations that have been put in place in other towns and cities.

The hon. Gentleman has been an unremitting and courageous advocate for better licensing, along with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). Indeed, three of my favourite Opposition Members are in their places. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) is right to draw attention to the report by Professor Abdel-Haq and the superb work he did. The foreword to the report says that it is about public wellbeing. The Government welcomed the report and accepted its recommendations, and I know the hon. Gentleman will want to ask—I do, too—when we will have the legislation necessary to put its recommendations into effect.

I strongly endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said. There is a real need to act, whether on the introduction of new rules to govern cross-border hiring so that people cannot flout safety terms and conditions, on finally providing a working statutory definition of plying for hire to prevent abuse of the two-tier system, or on ensuring that all drivers have disability training, recognising the concerns that Guide Dogs and other disabled passengers’ groups have raised about the inaccessible nature of too many journeys.

The Department cannot have failed to notice that Professor Abdel-Haq said at the end of his foreword:

“I look forward to the Government’s prompt response to this report in order to maintain the momentum for improvement.”

His final and clear word on the matter was:

“Undue delay would risk public safety.”

I am afraid that that is where we are now. We are in a position where passengers are made unnecessarily unsafe because the Government have been too slow to act, even though we have a clear cross-party consensus.

The Government and all Members of Parliament are held in low esteem by the general public because of the deadlock on Brexit. While the Government try to move through that deadlock, and we all try to work constructively to break the deadlock so that we can turn our attention to other issues, Wednesday’s debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill showed that the House does an enormous amount of good for the country. There are so many areas where we could build cross-party consensus for the benefit of our constituents and the country. The good news for the Minister, the Government Whips and the Prime Minister in looking forward to Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech and in thinking how they might legislate is that the votes exist for a taxi and private hire Bill. I hope that the Minister, even if he cannot pre-empt the Gracious Speech, can drop a significant clue about what might be in it.

There are also city-specific issues. As a Greater London MP, I am well aware of the impact that private hire vehicles have had on congestion in the streets of our capital city.

I must put on record my hon. Friend’s extraordinary work since becoming an MP on the regulation of the taxi industry. Does he agree that it is a democratic right that Transport for London and the Mayor should have the power to set—and, if necessary, limit—the number of private hire vehicles on London’s streets?

My hon. Friend has anticipated the point that I was about to make. Clearly, capping the number of private hire vehicles would not be appropriate in every town or city in the UK. However, the Mayor of London and Transport for London have made a compelling case to enable Transport for London to use a cap if that is deemed necessary and appropriate. Although I hear the objections from some parts of the industry, particularly those using vehicles with lower emissions, it is not just about the emissions of those vehicles. If those vehicles are clogging up the streets of London and the gas-guzzling lorries or other polluting vehicles are pumping out toxic fumes, that congestion is as big a contributor to poor air quality as those individual vehicles. For the first time in history—although perhaps not even the last—we have a former Mayor of London in No. 10. I hope that he will not be there for too long, but while he is, I hope that the Prime Minister, based on his experience as Mayor, might look on that proposal favourably. We have a huge area of consensus and a huge opportunity to legislate with cross-party support, so I hope that the Minister will give us some good news about how the Government will respond to our pleas for urgent action.

I want to raise a related issue, particularly in the light of Transport for London’s decision to grant a two-month licence extension to Uber: namely, the conduct of that operator. I recently met with Uber in London for the first time in many years. I also met with Uber when I visited its headquarters in San Francisco with the all-party group on the fourth industrial revolution, which is reflected in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am not from the luddite wing of the House of Commons; in fact, I have yet to find the luddite wing. [Interruption.] It is being suggested that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) might fit into that category. I think that is rather uncharitable and would never let it be said.

I have no problem at all with the way in which technology is going to change our society. Technological change is inevitable—it is coming; it is happening—but let me say to this Minister in particular, who is often at the cutting edge of political thinking on the centre right of British politics, that we have to think carefully about how we respond to this technological revolution, which is going to change the landscape of this country in terms of our work, our interactions, our relationships and our relationship with the wider world.

It is particularly important to learn the lessons of what we got wrong with globalisation. Just as globalisation has been a fantastic force for good in the world, bringing about peace and prosperity and lifting millions of the world’s poorest out of poverty, we cannot be ignorant of the fact that it has had enormous downsides, which have led to rapid deindustrialisation, the hollowing-out of towns and cities and the degradation of people’s working conditions and quality of life. Our failure— by which I mean the failure of the champions of globalisation—to recognise those downsides and mitigate them has led to a huge backlash, which is upending the peace, prosperity and stability that we have enjoyed in western liberal democracies since the end of the second world war, whether it is the referendum result to leave the European Union or the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America. There may be something ironic about a global movement against globalisation, but it is none the less there, and if the champions of globalisation had recognised the downsides and worked with those communities to ensure that everyone reaped the benefits, our politics, our country and our world would be in a better place.

We are now on the cusp of a new technological revolution that offers enormous opportunities for how we live, work and relate to the wider world, but there are downsides, and we see that in the case of Uber. Sure, people find it convenient to call Uber at the touch of a button—I should add that they will also find it convenient to call an iconic licensed London taxi at the touch of a button—but it cannot be right that a multinational corporation based in San Francisco that is effectively a glorified minicab app can undercut other competitors in the industry through aggressive tax avoidance, by not recognising their workers as employers, with standard employment rights, terms and conditions, by not paying them their fair share and by playing fast and loose with passenger safety.

I recognise that Uber has taken some steps, following rigorous enforcement from Transport for London, to clean up its act. It is now subjected to an additional 20 licence conditions on its London licence. However, I am afraid to say that it still has to be dragged through the courts to recognise basic employment rights and conditions. When it floated, its own report to the Securities and Exchange Commission said:

“Our workplace culture and forward-leaning approach created significant operational and cultural challenges that have in the past harmed, and may in the future continue to harm, our business results and financial condition.”

It mentioned in that report its

“focus on aggressive growth and intense competition, and…failure to prioritize compliance”.

Whether Uber is having to be dragged through legal action to comply with data standards and to give drivers access to the data they have requested, or whether it is being dragged through the courts by trade unions and Uber drivers—I really do pay tribute to GMB and United Private Hire Drivers—I am afraid that it is not yet acting in the way I would expect a forward-thinking, forward-looking, responsible technology provider to behave. I therefore hope that Transport for London scrutinises very carefully the case for renewing Uber’s licence.

Let me conclude on that point by saying this. If a licensed London taxi driver had breached their conditions in the way that Uber has, or if the minicab office up the road from my home had flouted its operating conditions, they would have lost their licences, and they would no longer be operating. We cannot send a message to big multinational corporations that we deem them too big to fail. It is important that the Government and Transport for London hold Uber rigorously to account.

I hope the Minister will take those messages on board. The taxi drivers, minicab drivers and Uber drivers I represent are looking to the Government to make sure we have a level playing field, fair competition and a diverse taxi and private hire industry in this city and in other towns and cities across the country that works in the interests of drivers and passengers and that, most of all, prioritises safety. That is what is at stake here.

In Woking, our Woking Street Angels have an informal arrangement with our licensed taxi drivers. If people are the worse for wear late at night—normally on a Friday or Saturday evening—the taxi drivers will take them home. My taxi drivers—many are from the Muslim community and do not drink themselves—often do not charge those customers or get any reimbursement. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in thanking all those licensed taxi drivers across the country who go above and beyond on behalf of the community?

I am grateful for that intervention, because it speaks to the generous hearts of taxi drivers and minicab drivers. We will see that reflected again when licensed London taxi drivers ferry some of our veterans from the big railway terminals and bus terminals across London to take part in Remembrance Sunday.

The great licensed black taxi is an iconic feature of our capital city. I think that it has a bright future. I think that it will survive every technological trend coming. It may well be the only driven car in a city with driverless cars. That is because people value the knowledge of London and the skills that licensed taxi drivers bring, and they love seeing the black taxi on the streets of London. We can have a competitive, but most of all a safe, industry in this city and in towns and cities across the country, but it requires the Government to act—and to act soon.

I very much appreciate your giving me permission to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be very brief. I thoroughly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting): this is absolutely about safety.

I just want to raise the professor’s report. He came to the Transport Committee and was questioned about it. He told us:

“The main takeaway from my point of view is that currently the public is at risk.”

That is a very strong thing to say, and I cannot understand why the Government have allowed this to run for so long. I am grateful to the former Minister, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). We worked in a cross-party way to produce a private Member’s Bill that was ready to go, but it was talked out, unfortunately. It is still there; it is still alive; and it would deal with driver licensing and enforcement. I plead with the Minister to keep it alive in the next few days. It is there to be done. Given that this has been running since the Law Commission report four or five years ago, it is quite extraordinary that we can allow the public to be put at risk in this way.

It is a great pleasure and privilege to open the batting in my new role as Minister for the future of transport with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as umpire, even if not before a packed Chamber—I am more of a night watchman covering for the Minister for taxi regulation.

I thank the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for his kind words, and I congratulate him on his assiduous pursuit of this issue in his time in the House. I know how strongly he feels and how widely he is respected across the House for his work, particularly through his chairmanship of the all-party group on taxis, of which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are also a supporter. I know that you have taken a close interest in the issue.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate at the perfect time, as the Government are thinking about their legislative programme. I am particularly delighted to be responding on behalf of my noble Friend the taxis Minister and in my capacity as Minister for the future of transport—a new role at the Department for Transport—responsible for using our research and development budget, procurement and regulation to drive decarbonisation and digitalisation and to tackle disconnection in the Department.

As this debate and the hon. Gentleman’s work have shown, the 360,000 licensed taxi and private hire drivers in England play an important role in our transport system, meeting those journey needs that mass transit does not. They help people to reach shops and vital services and they get people home safely at night. As he and others highlighted and attested, they often offer those services to communities free of charge—gratis.

Taxis and private hire vehicles provide a particularly important service for disabled passengers, supporting their independence, allowing them to get to work, shop and visit friends and family—things that most of us are lucky enough to be able to do without a second thought. We know that disabled passengers make twice as many taxi and private hire journeys as non-disabled passengers. For those reasons and many others, the Government want the sector to thrive so that it can continue to meet the public’s needs and expectations.

There is clearly a problem. We agree with the comments made tonight and those made elsewhere in the House that the legislation that governs the taxi and private hire vehicles sector needs reform. That has been driven by a series of issues: the pace of innovation in mobility; the out-of-date nature of some of the legislation; the urgency of the decarbonisation, digitalisation and automation revolutions; the safety of passengers; and the need to ensure accessibility for those who suffer from disabilities.

Woking has introduced some class-beating emissions standards for vehicles. I am sure I am not alone in hoping the Minister might give some comfort to other towns and cities that they will also be able to have clean air from their taxis in the years ahead.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will touch on that later. Part of my work on the future mobility zones is to drive the power of future mobility to help support clean air.

The use of apps to book vehicles is increasingly popular with passengers and this, perhaps more than any other factor, has thrown into sharp focus the fact that legislation drafted in the 20th century for private hire vehicles, let alone Victorian taxi legislation, has not kept pace with technological change and progress in the sector. As with other forms of licensing, the sector is licensed at a very local level, with 284 licensing authorities in England setting the standards they feel appropriate for their area. Unlike other forms of licensing, however, those that are licensed are by the very nature of the trade mobile and so will occasionally operate outside the area that granted the licence.

The increased use of technology has also added to the complexity by making it far easier to book a private hire vehicle, thereby fuelling an increase in the number of licensed vehicles across England in recent years. Numbers are up by more than 58% since 2005. This growth has been driven primarily by an increase in private hire vehicles, which today make up over three quarters of the total. The sector is clearly providing a service that passengers value, but the level of this increase does raise serious issues.

Let me now say a word about what the Government have done, and what we will do. We have recognised the issues relating to the regulation of the sector. As the hon. Gentleman said, the previous Minister of State convened the task and finish group on taxi and PHV licensing. I echo the thanks of others for the work done by the members of the group, particularly its chair, Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq, who is with us this evening. The group considered submissions, and took oral evidence, from a wide range of stakeholders over a number of months.

Professor Abdel-Haq managed to draw out a commendable amount of consensus among group members, but the report also includes annexed contributions from individual group members, which identify the often complex areas of disagreement. A notable example is the question of what approach should be taken in tackling the issue of cross-border or out-of-area working. As I have said, this trade is mobile, and authorities do not have complete control over the drivers and vehicles that operate in their areas, which means that authorities with higher licensing requirements have concerns about the potential migration of their private hire vehicles to other authorities.

The Government welcomed the report in their response earlier this year, and made a commitment to legislate on a number of key matters: national minimum standards, national enforcement powers and a national licensing database. I believe that, taken together, those measures would enable passengers—wherever and whoever they might be—to know that their driver had passed a nationally agreed safety standard, and was working with robust oversight.

In the meantime, the Department is making full use of the tools that are currently available to shape and influence, doing what it can to support licensing authorities in the use of their extensive existing powers. In particular, passenger safety remains in the forefront of our minds. I know that many licensing authorities have learnt lessons from some of the previous licensing failures mentioned by the hon. Gentleman: Rotherham, Rossendale and Southampton—to name but a few—have reviewed their licensing functions, with a focus on robust safety measures. However, we must ensure that those lessons are clearly and strongly disseminated across the country, and that all licensing authorities have that focus.

Earlier this year, the Government consulted on draft statutory guidance for local authorities in England and Wales, describing their view on how taxi and PHV licensing powers should be used to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. The draft was the subject of extensive engagement, including a review by the task and finish group. We received more than 500 responses, very largely in support of the proposed measures, but also making valuable suggestions for improvement. Consultation serves an important purpose in securing wide and expert input, and that will be reflected in the final version of the guidance, which I am delighted to confirm will be issued very shortly. Licensing authorities will be required by law to have due regard to the guidance in formulating and implementing their licensing policies, and the Department will monitor its use and impact.

Baroness Vere, the Minister responsible for taxi and private hire vehicles, and I, as Minister for the future of transport, are well seized of the potential for technological innovation in transport to change the sector and fuel demand, and the likelihood that it will continue to blur the lines between different modes and challenge existing regulatory structures. As the Government said earlier this year in our response to the task and finish group report, in our work on the future of mobility we will consider how we can support new technology and innovation through regulatory frameworks. I am delighted to have this opportunity to announce to the House that I will shortly be launching a very wide consultation on the future of mobility, which will look into how existing and future transport systems can interact. In the long term, as part of our future of mobility review, we will consider how to introduce a regulatory framework which recognises the changes that the sector has undergone and can adapt to innovation.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is meeting the taxis Minister shortly to discuss these issues, and that, as I have said, he has raised them at a time when the Government are pulling together their final plans for the Queen’s Speech; it has been announced that it will take place on 14 October. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman in any future discussions.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.