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House of Lords Hansard
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Air Quality (Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles Database) (England and Wales) Regulations 2019
11 April 2019
Volume 797

Motion to Approve

Moved by

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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 31 January be approved.

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My Lords, this instrument, if approved by Parliament and made, will require licensing authorities in England and Wales to supply certain information relating to taxis and private hire vehicles—PHVs—that have been licensed to operate in their areas. It enables the Secretary of State to create a database to hold that information and for it to be shared for enforcement of local air quality measures. This database will be used by local authorities for the purposes of enforcing locally introduced clean air zones. These zones will apply charges in respect of taxis and private hire vehicles, and the information on the database will enable local authorities to differentiate taxis and PHVs from other vehicles when entering the zone.

The instrument makes provision necessary for implementing the United Kingdom’s obligations under the ambient air quality directive 2008/50/EC and otherwise in the respect of management of air quality. It is made using powers under the Environment Act 1995. Air quality is a devolved matter. However, the regulations extend to England and Wales and apply to all 315 taxi and PHV licensing authorities, including Transport for London. Given the geographic location of charging clean air zones, it is important that all taxis and PHVs registered in England and Wales are recorded on the database.

Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010, but more still needs to be done to improve the quality of the air we breathe. The most immediate air quality challenge is the nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads. That is the only statutory air quality limit that the UK currently fails to meet. Due to the highly localised nature of this problem, local knowledge is crucial in developing solutions, but with the UK Government taking a strong national leadership role. That includes providing financial and expert technical support to local authorities in England as they develop bespoke and innovative plans to bring down levels of this pollutant as quickly as possible. The Welsh Government are taking a similar approach with two local authorities in Wales.

A clean air zone is a defined area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality. Charge-based access restrictions may apply. The July 2017 UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide identified that, at the national level, clean air zones that charged all vehicles that did not meet the required emissions standard were the measure that would achieve compliance with statutory nitrogen dioxide levels in the shortest possible time. The plan requires English local authorities with exceedances to explore whether they can find quicker alternatives.

The Clean Air Zone Framework, published in May 2017, sets out the minimum requirements for a clean air zone and the expected approach to be taken by local authorities when implementing and operating these zones. Where charging is necessary it should be structured so that vehicles that have a relatively larger impact on nitrogen dioxide levels, on a per-vehicle basis, should be targeted first so that the overall impact on individuals and businesses is reduced. Taxis and private hire vehicles are high-frequency users and thus have a disproportionate impact on air quality on a per-vehicle basis. A number of local authorities have already consulted on proposals for their local solutions and for some this includes the introduction of a charging clean air zone. Leeds City Council and Birmingham City Council will start to operate clean air zones from early next year.

There are four classes—A to D—of charging clean air zones in England, all of which charge pre-Euro 6 diesel and pre-Euro 4 petrol taxis and PHVs. Only class D clean air zones will charge personal cars. Local authorities considering class A to class C clean air zones have identified the need to differentiate taxis and PHVs from private cars and have asked the Government to create this database to help them to achieve this.

Local authorities hold information only on taxis and PHVs licensed in their areas. They are not able to identify those licensed by another authority. Hence, there is a need for all licensing authorities to provide information, such as the vehicle registration number and the start and expiry date of the vehicle licence, to a central database at least once a week. The effectiveness of clean air zones will be dependent on having a complete data set for taxis and PHVs. The database will form part of the wider infrastructure being developed by government to support charging clean air zones.

Defra officials carried out a public consultation between 5 October and 2 November 2018 on the proposals to create this database. Just over 100 responses were received, about 40% of which were from licensing authorities. The majority of respondents were in favour of the database. Those who did not agree did so for a number of reasons, including concerns that the database would duplicate the information already held by the DVLA, which is not the case, or because they felt the database should be expanded to include further details, such as those relating to drivers of taxis and PHVs. Some opposed the charging of taxis and PHVs in clean air zones more generally.

Local authorities are required to carry out specific local consultation on their plans to introduce a charging scheme. In addition, meetings have been held with representatives of the taxi and PHV sector, and a licensing authority working group has been set up to provide support and guidance as we continue to develop the database.

An impact assessment has not been prepared for this instrument as the creation and maintenance of the database will not have a significant impact on businesses. A regulatory triage assessment has been prepared to assess the impacts on licensing authorities. The database will be designed and hosted in a way that complements existing processes wherever possible to minimise the burden on licensing authorities. Licensing authorities will be funded for this additional work in line with the new burdens principle.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments considered the instrument and cleared it without comment in its report of 23 January. Counsel to the committee identified a drafting error so we relaid the instrument on 31 January to add a commencement date. No other changes were made. The Explanatory Memorandum was also relaid but no changes were made. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I think the principle of the regulations that the Minister has moved will be entirely uncontroversial to the House. Giving local authorities more powers to regulate air quality and the causes of poor air quality is the right thing to do. It is right that local authorities, which represent the views of their voters, should be able to act on this, providing they use sound procedural methods. I do not think any noble Lord will want to query the principle of the regulations. Poor air quality is one of the main causes of premature death in the country at large and it is right to give local authorities the power to deal with it.

I have two issues. First, the Minister’s speech was full of impenetrable jargon. It was clearly written for her by her civil servants. Will she tell us what a “regulatory triage assessment” is? I have not come across that phrase before. What is the “new burdens principle” she referred to? I was not aware of the old burdens principle, but can she tell us what the new burdens principle is?

Secondly, it would be helpful if the Minister could give us some indication of the Government’s assessment. She referred to a regulatory panel being set up in her department to deal with this, an oversight panel that will oversee the process. It would be helpful if the House had some indication of what the impact of these new clean air zones will be on taxi fleets outside London. There clearly will be opposition to it from taxi operators because they fear they will be subject to charges, particularly for older vehicles that are more polluting. It would be helpful if we had some idea of what the Government think the impact will be. I know this has been a particular issue in London. The mayor has been forthright about the need to modernise taxi fleets, and I support him in doing so. My assumption is that the taxi fleet outside London is older and might be more impacted by clean air zones, and it would be useful if we had some understanding of what the impact is likely to be.

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My Lords, there will always be somebody who will be inconvenienced by changes and, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, in this case it will be fleet drivers and fleet operators. They will often have cars that a few years ago would not have been thought out of date but will suddenly become so. A study of how we are making sure that that bit of the transport network goes on would be beneficial to the House.

This information will be updated once a week, but local government is not exactly awash with spare cash at the moment. Will the Minister indicate how the Government will support this to make sure it happens? I cannot think of a bit of local government at the moment that is not saying and displaying by its actions that it is short of resources. This database is a good thing, but if the Government do not make sure it is properly financed it will not happen well or quickly. Will the Minister give us a little more information on that?

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My Lords, I welcome the Government’s proposal. I draw the Minister’s attention to the concerns raised by UNICEF, particularly about children’s health. For instance, children’s lungs, which are developing, are particularly susceptible to toxicity in the air. I suffered from pneumonia as a child, and the risks of pneumonia and asthma are raised by high air toxicity levels. These clean air zones seem very welcome.

The Minister talked about nitrogen dioxide levels, but did not mention particulate matter, which can be so fine that it can enter a mother’s respiratory tract and pass through to her developing foetus, reducing birth weight and impacting the foetus in other ways. Issues such as asthma and pneumonia can result from that. Could the Minister say whether she is also looking at particulate matter in these clean air zones?

As a vice-president of the Local Government Association, I am also concerned about further burdens on local government and what the Government are doing to help authorities get the funds necessary to be effective in reacting to this problem.

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My Lords, I declare my interests as a member of Sheffield City Council and a vice-president of the Local Government Association, as in the register. I have sat on licensing committees and been the leader of a council, so I understand the process of licensing and the burden that licensing authorities experience. I reiterate the views expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend on the Front Bench. Considering that local authorities have lost £6 in every £10 of their spending ability over the last few years, the burden on them is really serious. While no one would disagree that this is a good idea that can help improve the environment, local authorities desperately need resources to enact it. Otherwise, it will be a good idea that turns into a burden and does not have the maximum impact.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her introduction and for organising a helpful briefing with officials before this debate. I declare an interest through my involvement with the charity ClientEarth. It is a breath of fresh air to be debating an SI that is not connected to Brexit. It is a joy on the last day of term. I hope that this is the first sign that normal service is beginning to be restored.

As the Minister said, the SI is, in itself, fairly straightforward, establishing as it does a central database for licensing authorities to record details of taxis and private hire vehicles to enable enforcement of local air quality measures. We have long supported the rollout of clean air zones to tackle air pollution and therefore will not object to this SI. However, sadly, the Government have been consistently slow in addressing the growing public health crisis, which has arisen from illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. This proposal once again seems to be a partial solution to a huge national problem. Time and again, ClientEarth has successfully won cases in the courts arising from the Government’s failure to tackle the air pollution crisis effectively. The jury is still out on whether their latest version of the clean air strategy is bold enough.

The central problem with the Government’s strategy, which we are dealing with and has been raised by a number of noble Lords in the debate, is that it places the onus on delivering clean air on cash-strapped local authorities and does not provide sufficient leadership and resources from the centre to make it happen. The result is that local authorities have been repeatedly missing deadlines for bringing air pollution into safe limits. The Government have known for some time that the quickest way to address the problem is to introduce clean air zones linked to charging for polluting vehicles, but they have been reluctant to require authorities to take these measures. As a result, some have and some have not. It is still unclear what will happen to the authorities that do not clean up their air quality in a timely manner.

Turning to our specific proposals, first, it would have been easier for the Government to establish a national database at the outset into which local authorities could feed data, rather than waiting for local databases to be set up and then trying to co-ordinate the different IT systems. Could the Minister clarify whether this was considered, and why this proposal is only now, belatedly, in this form before us? Also, the regulations only designate that the Secretary of State “may create a database” for the information received. Can the Minister explain why it does not require the Secretary of State to produce a database, given that this seems to be the whole purpose of this SI?

Secondly, as the Minister explained, the original SI was withdrawn and reissued. It was considered by our colleagues in the Commons on 26 February, and we are dealing with it here today, 11 April. The SI has an operative date of 1 May, so can the Minister assure us that this gives licensing authorities enough time to prepare for this new requirement? If, as I think it does, it covers London, which already has clean air zones, can the Minister assure us that arrangements with the Mayor of London to feed into that database will be in place by 1 May, and, if not, what provisions are being made for that?

Thirdly, I was interested in the debate on the SI in the Commons. The Minister there was asked how the databases would differentiate between a vehicle when it was being used for work and when it was being driven for personal use. She replied that this was an issue for local authorities to decide—in other words, she passed the buck back to the local authorities. I found that answer rather unsatisfactory. There is a real gap in the way that the system is being set up by devolving the responsibilities to local authorities. The least the Government could do to resolve this is to issue some sort of guidance at a national level, so that the matter is dealt with consistently across different local authorities and licensing authorities. Can the Minister explain how local and national databases will be able to differentiate between private and public use to enable proper charging to take place?

Finally, the SI creates another government database, with details of the approximately 300,000 taxi and private hire vehicles in England and Wales. This raises a question about the security of the data and the uses to which it might be put. Am I right that the data will not include details of the driver, but just the vehicle that has been licensed? Could the Minister provide reassurance that the data will not be used for other purposes, such as being cross-referenced with immigration or taxation databases? Could she envisage any other purposes for which this database might be used, even in extreme circumstances?

As I said at the outset, this SI provides only a partial solution to the challenge of cleaning up our air quality. It lacks the urgent national action that we feel is necessary to really make a difference. We need tighter, legally binding limits on pollution levels at a national level, with penalties for those who transgress. The forthcoming environment Bill provides an opportunity to make this a reality. Therefore, I hope the Minister can reassure us that the Government will use it to make the huge changes that will clean up our air for good. I look forward to her response.

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I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I am very pleased that I had the Question on air pollution earlier this week. It was a bit of a heads-up as to what might be heading in my direction going beyond the remit of the SI today—as is always the case.

Taking the questions in order, I will go first to those from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. It is a pleasure to have him join an SI debate—and a non-Brexit one at that—and I welcome the important questions he has raised. “Regulatory triage assessment” is, yes, a very government type of term. It is similar to an impact assessment, but rather than looking at the impact outside government it looks at the impact inside government, in this case on the licensing authorities, the amount of work they will have to do and the cost of it.

That brings me on to something else I had not heard of before today’s debate, and that is the new burdens doctrine. This is an agreement reached when funding for local authorities was set out. It ensures that pressure on council tax is kept down and that the net additional cost of new burdens placed on local authorities by central government must be assessed and fully and properly funded. In this case, we will be funding the additional burdens on the licensing authorities for the time and resources required to take the data, in whatever form it might exist in the local authority, and upload it to the central portal. Local authorities will not be out of pocket in this regard.

On funding for local authorities more generally, when it comes to the clean air strategy and the localism involved in encouraging local authorities to take action that befits their area, a significant amount of funding is available. There are two main pots of funding. One is a £275 million implementation fund for councils. Once they have their plan and it has been approved by government, they can bid for this money to help them implement whatever they are looking to do, whether that is a charging clean air zone, replacing or retrofitting buses, providing charging points for cars or any of the other things they can do. The second is the £220 million clean air fund that is available for local individuals and businesses that may be impacted by their local authority’s strategy for clean air. That covers the local authorities’ perspective.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, also mentioned the licensing authority working group. There are two working groups that exist at the moment. In one, we are consulting and talking to taxi and PHV operators. In the second, we are working with a group of licensing authorities to make sure that this IT system works and to hear their concerns during its implementation.

A number of noble Lords raised an issue about the impact on local taxi fleets and PHVs. We hope this will encourage local operators to make sure their fleets are less polluting. There are no two ways about it: if it does not have that intention and effect, we will be failing. Over time, I hope that taxi fleets have slightly more modern cars with fewer emissions—ideally, zero-emission cars, but that may not be possibly immediately.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about roads and Highways England. There is a significant amount of money available to Highways England. It hopes to invest £75 million on roads to the end of March 2020 —so the next year or so—to make sure that our roads are less polluting in the way they are structured.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, took the debate slightly wider—as is often the case but always welcome—into fine particulate matter. Nitrogen oxides is one bucket of pollutants; fine particulate matter is another. He brought up the issue of children and the impact on their lungs. Indeed, this is about the impact on the lungs of all vulnerable people, and we are cognisant of that impact. We are looking at the WHO targets set out, and we understand they are challenging. No major economy has committed to them but, as a first step, our goal is to halve the percentage of the population who are living in areas with levels of fine particulate matter more than 10 micrograms per metre cubed, by 2025. We are also looking at setting a longer-term goal for that. We understand that it will be quite challenging, but there will be ways that we can do it. Obviously, then we end up with a balance between the things that we can do and the impact they would have on individuals and citizens who would have to deal with the consequences.

I turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. She has made the criticism before that she feels that this is a public health crisis and, while I would not put the word “crisis” to it, I believe it is a significant public health problem at the moment and that this is a partial solution. This is one SI addressing one database for one area. The clean air strategy more generally is very broad. It tackles the five different types of pollutants. We have plans for each of them and how we are going to deal with them in the future. We have legally binding international targets and we believe that, for example, by 2020 we should be able to reduce the costs of pollution by £1.7 billion and by 2030 by £5.3 billion. These numbers are not insignificant. I believe that we are showing great leadership in this area and will continue to do so.

The noble Baroness also asked whether the IT system was overly complicated and in the wrong order. I agree that it would seem to be in the wrong order; however, we have to deal with the situation that we have now. We have powers under the Environment Act to set up this particular database. The data already exists within the licensing authorities—things such as the vehicle registration mark, the date from which the licence has effect, the date on which the licence is due to expire and a statement as to whether it is a taxi or a PHV. No details about the driver will go into this database at all. That would not be allowed under the powers that we have. We have spoken to the group which will be setting up the system. It is quite a simple system. They are quite easy data groups to compile together and we will be doing it on a piecemeal basis. We will start will the local authorities which will be implementing these clean air zones and then move beyond that until we cover all 315 licensing authorities.

However, it is important to recognise that there is a next step to this, and that is that we are looking to create a national taxi and private hire database. This was recommended by the Department for Transport task and finish group on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing. However, the goal of this database—while it would include information on taxis—is to go beyond just clear air zones and would need primary legislation. Obviously, we will consider that in due course. Its goal would be to protect people who use private hire vehicles and make sure, for example, that drivers who have been disqualified in one area are not then able to apply in a separate area.

The noble Baroness asked about the wording that the Secretary of State “may” create a database. I fear that this is just government wording. The objective of this legislation is to make all licensing authorities have a duty to provide the data. This instrument provides the necessary power for the Secretary of State to create and host the database. It is a key part of the clean air zones and we look forward to it being up and running as soon as possible.

I acknowledge that it feels that there is a short timescale between today’s debate and 1 May when this will commence. However, we have been in touch with the licensing authorities already. They are fully aware that this is coming down the track. We believe that we will be ready to go live in January 2020, which is when the first charging clean air zones will be up and running.

The Mayor of London is within the remit of this. Noble Lords will be aware that he has launched his ULEZ—an ultra-low emission zone. The ULEZ does not charge London licensed taxis to travel within it. However, those taxis may go to other charging zones where they may be charged, depending on the local area, so London will also be required to submit its information to the central database.

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness on the issue of whether a taxi is working or being used by a family to go on a trip. We are going to leave it up to local authorities to decide how they deal with this, because they will have a better understanding of what their local fleets of taxis and private hire vehicles look like and what the most appropriate outcome would be. It might be that in some areas lots of people do one day a week and in others they do seven. The local authorities will obviously liaise with their local fleets of taxis and PHVs and will be able to set—

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I have sat on a licensing committee. We do not have that kind of detail at local authority level. The only way to determine that would be whether the person had a fare in the cab or vehicle at a certain time. Local authorities will not, therefore, be able to make a determination based on the information which the Minister has just referred to. We are going to have to have some national guidance which helps all local authorities make that decision. Otherwise, we are going to get decisions, which are not consistent across the country, that will feed into the database—whether or not the vehicle is being used as a private family vehicle. The information being sought is not collated by local authorities at the moment.

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I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I was not saying that the local authority would have the information, but one would certainly expect it—particularly if it was a larger one—to be in contact with its local fleets of taxis and PHVs to understand the more general working practices. Each of these charging clean air zones will have been set up after local consultation. I expect that is one of the issues which the local fleets would have put into the consultation. We are not minded to provide national guidance at the moment, although obviously that may change in the future. For the time being, we believe that this should be a local decision and that it should be up to the local licensing authorities to come up with a reasonable solution for what works in their areas.

Security of data is obviously an important issue. Because of the powers in the Environment Act 1975, under which this is set up, the data can only be shared for the purpose of enforcing air quality measures. The Act limits the information that can be provided to the minimum necessary to identify the vehicle as a taxi or PHV and does not cover any personal data about the licence holder.

I believe I have covered pretty much everything.

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I compliment the Minister on her extremely competent response to the debate. If it is in her briefing, could she tell the House the average age of taxis in London and outside it? If not, could she write to me with that information?

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I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. I do not have that information and I am not entirely sure that it exists. If it does, I will certainly write to him, with a copy to all noble Lords. It would be interesting information for all of them to have.

Finally, I turn to the environment Bill and the clean air strategy that we have published. We will look to the Bill to provide the legislative underpinning for how we will be creating a stronger and more coherent framework of targets for all the issues relating to air pollution. I look forward to debating the Bill in your Lordships’ House as soon as possible. I commend the regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.