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Pedicabs: Women’s Safety

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021

We move on to another important debate. While people are getting into place, there are some housekeeping rules. I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current guidance that the House of Commons Commission has provided. I remind Members that they are asked to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when they are seated and when entering and leaving the room. I apologise for it being so cold in the room, but you lot have only just come in and I have already been here for one and a half hours.

I call Nickie Aiken to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of women and the regulation of pedicabs in London.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, for what I consider to be a very important debate for my constituency. It is a truth well known that cities such as London attract people looking for opportunities for education, culture, work and a vibrant community. In London, we are blessed with a huge volume of spaces to do that. However, the way that public spaces are used and experienced in our capital differs for women and men. As the local Member of Parliament, one thing is clear to me: women have the right to use space in the same way as men and should feel safe in doing so. Since the devastating murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, many people have contacted me to highlight concerns about women and girls’ safety on our streets. For a multitude of reasons, their deaths have become a watershed moment. Women understood the vulnerability of walking home alone at night. The Government have made incredible strides in recent years on the issue, and I commend the Home Office ministerial team on its work. I note in particular the Government’s strategy on tackling violence against women and girls. I know the Minister’s work in the Department for Transport on this area and I pay respect to that as well—brilliant work.

The violence against women and girls strategy is a significant step in the right direction, but there is still an enormous piece of work to do around making sure our cities and, in particular, our capital city leave no stone unturned in ensuring the safety of women and girls on our streets. In recent years, a great emphasis has been placed on ensuring that modes of public and private hire transport meet standards of safety so that passengers can move around our capital with a sense of security. For women in particular, I know this is a great relief. It is therefore of huge concern that we still have unregulated private hire vehicles in London. Here I speak about the issue of unlicenced pedicabs.

On that point, does the hon. Member agree that any private hire vehicle, including pedicabs, should be regulated and licensed?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I absolutely agree, and I know that the local authority in her Vauxhall constituency, Lambeth, also agrees with us that pedicabs should be regulated.

Anyone who has come to central London has seen and most likely heard pedicabs. They are loud, they often block roads, and many intimidate and harass London visitors, particularly women. Currently, they are the only form of public transport in the capital that is unregulated. Due to a legal loophole, Transport for London is unable to regulate pedicabs, which means that neither drivers nor vehicles are licensed. I know that there are pedicab firms that undertake their own voluntary vehicle and driver checks and have the right insurance. I have met them and I have worked with the pedicab drivers’ association. I fully support those pedicab companies that want to do the right thing. However, as noted in the official impact assessment of the Pedicabs (London) Bill, there are still too many rogue pedicab drivers who do nothing to ensure that they and their vehicles are safe or insured, and they work at the moment without any legal repercussions.

This is a particular issue around the west end in my constituency, with its major theatres, nightlife venues and tourist locations, and in the backstreets of Soho and Covent Garden, which are so vibrant. Every day I see and hear about the impact of rogue pedicab drivers on local people, local businesses and visitors. Touting can be extremely aggressive, with amplified music and shouting into the early hours and throughout the night. As Amanda Jane, a Soho resident, said to me only last night:

“When you have your children woken up at midnight by these things, it is incredibly stressful and upsetting.”

The police, local councils and Transport for London need to be able to monitor these vehicles to ensure that passengers are safe. I do not say this lightly: we are living on borrowed time. I really worry about the safety of passengers, particularly women and girls, who experience repeated antisocial behaviour from rogue drivers. I note that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has a useful power for councils such as Westminster City Council to use in reducing the antisocial behaviour related to pedicabs. However, that is a short-term measure that requires huge amounts of evidence, time and resources. Local authorities do not have the finances to spend on that, but closing a simple loophole would give them the powers that they need.

The turnover of riders and the locations that they use means that it is very rare for a case to be brought to court. Pedicab drivers are a transient population. As soon as they know that they are in trouble with the police or a local authority, they disappear, so the local authority’s power is useless, but local people and businesses have to put up with it.

The patchwork of issues can be traced back to the fact that a pedicab is currently defined as a “stage carriage” in Greater London under the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and thus does not fall under TfL’s licensing powers. I say to the Minister again: we are in the 21st century and are having to deal with 19th-century legislation. For the sake of women’s and girls’ safety, it is surely time to modernise the legislation surrounding pedicabs.

It is so frustrating. We need to ensure that pedicabs in our capital city are regarded as hackney carriages and thus subject to regulation. In every other city in England, they are considered hackney carriages and can be regulated, although we do not see them in other large cities. I cannot recall seeing them in Manchester. They might be there, but they are not as prevalent as they are in central London, and there is probably a reason for that. Rogue pedicab operators know that they are not regulated and they can get away with dreadful—

On that point, the Local Government Association supports the use of the national register of licence revocations and refusals for pedicab licensing. Does the hon. Lady feel that that would provide the safety checks to reassure women that the people driving those cabs have had adequate checks?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The more checks that we can have on drivers, the better. We do not know who they are most of the time. I have so much evidence in my office that I have collated over the last couple of years, and drivers have been known to be wanted by the police, not just in the UK but overseas. We are allowing women to get into vehicles with drivers who have not been checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service. I find it incredible.

I am sure the Minister appreciates that this loophole invites a whole host of issues, not least the safeguarding of passengers—not just women, but all passengers. All other private hire vehicles, including our iconic black cabs, have to satisfy a whole range of licensing requirements to protect passengers. I have had the benefit of black cab drivers’ views on pedicabs many times, and they are frustrated that it is not the same for them as it is for pedicabs. When they are at a traffic light with a pedicab, they have to jump through hoops but the pedicab does not. I thank our brilliant black cab drivers, and the nation thanks a particular taxi driver in Liverpool for his heroic actions on Sunday morning. We owe them the ability to have a fair scheme for all private hire vehicles.

Unlike the situation when someone gets into an Uber, private hire vehicle or black cab, pedicab passengers have no way of knowing where they are going or with whom they are getting into the vehicle. In London, pedicabs are able to operate with impunity, which leads to conflict and an inconsistent position with licensed private hires—we must move to a transparent safety and movement-regulated system. Transparency is key, and the perception of safety is just as important as the licence transparency scheme. As it stands, there is no accountability for any incident, which is what concerns me. As a woman, and as the mother of a young woman, that concerns me. It speaks to a culture of some pedicab operators being able to get away with unacceptable behaviour and unsafe vehicles, which are encouraged by an absence of a licensing regime, and it is unfair on pedicab operators who do the right thing.

Given the lack of regulation, there are very few powers that the police can enforce with regards to rogue pedicabs. For instance, law enforcement has no powers in relation to lack of insurance, lack of training for riders, or pedicabs that are not fit for the purpose of carrying passengers. This means that even if a police officer sees a wholly unfit pedicab, they can do very little to prevent its hire in central London or across the capital. I often walk around my constituency, and I am always shocked, frustrated and appalled by the behaviour of many pedicabs drivers who are touting for business. We really need to end this practice.

The police can enforce cycle construction, use and lighting regulations, but even those are unclear with regards to pedicabs and other three or four-wheeled cargo or work bikes. TfL’s “Pedicab Safety Evaluation” notes that, as pedicabs

“are not referred to specifically”

in such regulations, they often do not comply. One resident in my constituency put it well:

“When I spoke to a pedicab driver, he told me I’d better get used to it as it was about to get worse after lockdown. He said, ‘There’s nothing the police can do about it. This nuisance is permitted as the operators are able to use a byelaw related to the power of their machines.’”

That is truly staggering. Others and I have sustained evidence that many pedicab operators not only act contrary to basic health and safety standards, but do so knowing there is little power to hold them to account.

I want to do everything I can to ensure that we send a clear message that when we see examples of poor standards and behaviour in London, we will respond with strength. Intervention is necessary to create a licensing system to improve passenger safety, particularly for women and girls, which is why I am delighted to be bringing my Pedicabs (London) Bill to the House for its Second Reading on Friday. I have received powerful testimony from local authorities, businesses and residents on the transformative effect that the Bill will have in London. My Bill is supported by Members from all parties, the Mayor of London, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, TfL, London councils such as Westminster, Lambeth, Camden, and Kensington and Chelsea, the pedicab drivers association, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the New West End Company, and the Heart of London Business Alliance. It is also supported by residents associations and amenity societies up and down my constituency: the Soho Society, the Marylebone Association, the St Marylebone Society, the Covent Garden Community Association, the Knightsbridge Association, and the Hyde Park Association, to name but a few. By enabling TfL to introduce a licensing system for pedicabs, the Bill would allow it to set standards for operators, vehicles and drivers. It could check whether a pedicab driver had the right to work in the UK, and allow licensed operators to provide a service to passengers that would ensure their safety.

I want to make sure that the Minister is aware that I was informed of a tourist being charged £380 for a journey from Leicester Square to Stratton Street, which is under a mile. I cannot find the charge for a black cab, but the equivalent Uber cost would be £7. There is therefore a concern about the amount of money that is being charged.

In conclusion, I know that the Minister understands this, as well as the danger posed to women and girls in public spaces; I appreciate all the work that she has done in her current and previous roles. Do we really have to see someone seriously hurt, sexually assaulted, raped or killed in order to ensure that we get more safety for pedicabs? Do we really want to have to look a family in the face and say that, actually, we could have regulated pedicabs? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by sincerely thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing a debate on this incredibly important issue. I am very grateful for the contribution from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who has expressed her support in the debate. This is truly a cross-party issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster has accumulated an impressive collection of stakeholders, local community groups and politicians across the board who back her dedicated campaign. I pay huge tribute to her determination to propel this issue to forefront of our attention. I also associate myself with the comments she has made about the debt of gratitude that we all owe to the taxi driver in the tragic Liverpool terrorist attack.

I feel like I have come back home to the Department for Transport in responding to this debate, and it is a great pleasure to do so. My hon. Friend referenced the fact that I served in that Department, so I have some familiarity with this issue and how important it is. I am also pleased to say that the Government recognise her concerns, expressed so well, about the safety of pedicabs, and the impact that they can have across the whole of the city, not least in her constituency, which is a centre of night-time and tourist activity. As another woman who travels on public transport around London and in my constituency, as all of us do, and as a mother of a young woman, I agree with my hon. Friend that this is not just something that we discuss in Parliament—it is the lived experience that all of us have when we go outside. I want to pull out a line that she has used: “Women have the right to feel safe in the same spaces as men.” I fully agree with her.

My hon. Friend has run a considerable campaign to raise awareness of the issue, and the Government have listened. The Government acknowledge that it is not acceptable for the pedicab industry to be the only unregulated form of public transport in London. It is a glaring legal anomaly. She has amassed considerable evidence and some very powerful testimony, so we agree that regulating this industry is in the interests of safety and fairness for all road users, pedestrians and passengers. My hon. Friend is also right to highlight the timing; we are coming out of lockdown, starting to see tourists come back to the businesses of the west end and other parts of London, and starting to see people go out and enjoy the night-time economy, as we discussed in this Chamber only last week. Pedicabs are an important part of the landscape that people will see when they come to our city, and we owe it to everybody to make this form of transport safe.

That is why the Government support my hon. Friend’s Bill, which has its Second Reading this Friday. I wish her a huge amount of Godspeed and good luck with it. If introduced, her Bill will enable Transport for London to introduce a licensing regime with enforcement powers and, among other things, to introduce safety requirements. I do not want to tempt fate, but we all know that things do not always go smoothly in the Chamber. In the unfortunate event that her Bill does not proceed beyond Second Reading, the Government will seek opportunities to bring forward our own legislation.

I thank the Minister for that response. It is good to hear that the Government will support the private Member’s Bill. This is an issue that people have raised a number of times. As in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), in my constituency of Vauxhall, outside St Thomas’ Hospital, where people have had eye operations and elective surgery, people have been harassed by these pedicabs. We need reform to the legislation now—Londoners can wait no longer. If the private Member’s Bill does not proceed to the next stage, will the Minister push the issue with her colleagues in the Department for Transport?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I have been to that hospital myself and experienced exactly the things that she has described. I can assure her that Baroness Vere of Norbiton, who is responsible for this issue in the Department for Transport, is looking closely at all options. She has met my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster to discuss future opportunities to introduce our own legislation, should it be required, as soon as parliamentary time permits.

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a long-running issue. It is something to which the Department for Transport has dedicated attention. She rightly raised the important issue of women’s safety, which we have discussed many times in this Chamber. In my role as a Home Office Minister, it is right that I recognise the points that she has made. As safeguarding Minister, tackling violence against women and girls, in all its forms and wherever it occurs is my top priority.

When I was a Minister in the Department for Transport, I prioritised the safety of women and girls. We worked closely through the issues that are faced by vulnerable groups, including women, on the transport network, and we are keen to do more. That is why, when I was a Minister there, I was delighted to appoint Laura Shoaf and Anne Shaw as the first VAWG transport champions in the Department. They work across campaign groups, industry and the whole of Government to understand where we can improve safety on the UK’s transport network. By January next year, they will produce independent recommendations for the Department for Transport and the wider network on which best practices should be adopted to improve the safety of the transport network for women and girls. That is a really important theme. Although I am now in the Home Office and work with the police and other partners, women and girls often say that they feel most unsafe when they are taking public transport, walking home from a night out or thinking about how to get home, whether by tube, bus or train. That is where those vulnerabilities exist, and that is why it is really important that I work closely with my former Department to ensure that they are addressed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy, which is a really important piece of work that seeks to ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere. It was informed by a public call for evidence run by the Home Office, to which we received over 180,000 responses—one of the highest numbers for pieces of evidence that the Government have ever received in a public consultation. That was quite an overwhelming response, and demonstrates the scale of the issue. The evidence includes testimonies from victims, victim support organisations, frontline professionals and academics.

In the strategy that we have published, we have set forth a number of commitments across Government. There are several strands to the strategy that we are pursuing, because it is important that we ensure that women and girls are safe, not only on the transport network but across wider society. I will highlight a couple of things that are particularly relevant to the issues that my hon. Friend has highlighted in the debate.

We often think about pedicabs being used in the night-time economy. We know that night-time is a time when women and girls feel very vulnerable, and that they are concerned about crime such as harassment in public spaces. In particular, they are concerned about that feeling or perception of being unsafe when they are walking home.

I shall highlight a couple of commitments that the Home Office has already made. We are piloting a £5 million safety of women at night fund, which is designed to prevent violence against women and girls in public spaces at night, specifically including the night-time economy. It is focused on the prevention of the crimes we have discussed, to help women to feel safe in public spaces at night, including in venues and on routes home.

Another very important fund is the safer streets fund, for which we are providing an additional £25 million. That fund has a particular focus on women and girls, and through it we are supporting a range of projects, including an initiative by the British Transport police to develop a safer travel online platform across the rail network, to make reporting easier; funding for the City of London Corporation to enable the delivery of 24 night hubs with St John Ambulance medics and plain-clothes police, to respond to incidents and to increase women’s feeling of safety; and piloting a new online tool, StreetSafe. That was developed in collaboration with the National Police Chiefs Council, and it enables people, particularly women and girls, to pinpoint locations where they have felt unsafe and to identify the features of those locations that made them feel that way. In response to such identifications, police and crime commissioners, as well as local policing teams, can use that data to support local decision making. StreetSafe is being very widely welcomed and well used. As of 12 November, 6,895 reports have been made using this particular tool, 72% of them from women, which is no surprise.

My hon. Friend and other Members will be aware that we have recently appointed a national lead in the police on the critical issue of violence against women and girls. The Home Secretary has appointed Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, whom I have already met to discuss the work that she will do to lead on best practice in police forces across the country.

I will end my remarks by encouraging anyone who feels unsafe while they are walking around the streets or using a pedicab in my hon. Friend’s constituency, or Vauxhall, or indeed anywhere else in London, to report it—please—to the police. This issue is a priority for this Government. It is vital that women and girls feel safe, whether they are going to work, meeting their friends or going for a night out. That is a priority for the Home Secretary, for the Prime Minister and for me, and we will work tirelessly to drive the actions in the violence against women and girls strategy, both in society generally and on the public transport network. We are determined to leave no stone unturned to keep women and girls safe.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.