HC Deb 24 March 1980 vol 981 cc1055-66

'.—(1) Notwithstanding anything in any enactment:

  1. (a) no passenger vehicle of less than eight seats which carries passengers for hire or reward, or for payment of any kind, other than 1056 a hackney carriage licensed to ply for hire under the several enactments in force within the United Kingdom for licensing such hackney carriages, shall have affixed to the roof, thereof, a sign of any kind or description.
  2. (b) nothing in subsection (a) of this section shall prevent a District Council from requiring, or allowing, an idenification sign, or mark, on a Private Hire Vehicle licensed under Part II of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, provided always that any such sign, or mark, so required or allowed, shall have no means of illumination and shall be fitted, or affixed, 1057 on the side doors, and, or, rear of the vehicle and below the window line of the said vehicle;
  3. (c) no vehicle being used to give lifts for payment under this Act, or the Transport Act 1978, will carry any sign of any kind or description on any part of the vehicle indicating that the vehicle was being, or is used, to give lifts for payment.

(2) If any person contravenes the provisions of this section he shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding two hundred pounds and to a daily fine of twenty pounds.'.—[Mr. Cowans]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Cowans

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

When debating a Bill of this nature, it is always wise to look at previous legislation to consider whether we can put right the mistakes of that legislation. I do not wish to lecture the House—I have not been an hon. Member long enough to do that—but sometimes legislation does not achieve the intended objectives.

The problem dealt with by the new clause is not a new one. A number of attempts have been made to solve it. The effort made in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 was a dismal failure, partly because it was no deterrent. We seek to differentiate between the hackney carriage licensed to ply for hire and the private hire car. Many hon. Members will have been grateful for the taxi with its light on which they have been able to flag down on their weary way home.

We have to consider the interests of the public, on which great emphasis has been laid during our debates. Not long ago, a friend of mine dashing from Heathrow airport spied a vehicle with an illuminated sign and jumped into the vehicle. He asked the driver how much he would charge to take him across London and was told that the cost would be £5. Also in the car was another passenger who was being taken to London for £5.

The driver was not breaking the law, because he was driving a private hire cab. When a passenger takes a private hire cab, he makes a contract with the driver to be conveyed to a destination at an agreed price. The fares of taxis are registered by local authorities in the provinces and by the Home Office in London. On entering a taxi one can ascertain the fare.

We have to consider what is the neces- sity for an illuminated sign. The answer is self-explanatory in the case of hackney carriages. When its sign is lit, the driver is plying for hire. When the sign is not lit, the driver may be going for his tea or be on his way to pick up a fare.

When a member of the public sees an illuminated sign, he will, nine times out of 10, associate it with a taxi cab. The new clause attempts to solve the problem by saying that the only vehicle that may show an illuminated sign on the top of the vehicle is a taxi cab plying for hire.

Some of the signs on private hire cars are like hire-purchase agreements. One sees the sign lit up, but only later does one notice in small print "private hire". A taxi cab plying for hire is obliged to pick up a member of the public, and such vehicles should be clearly identified and should be the only vehicles allowed to show an illuminated sign. The only reason for the illuminated sign on private hire cars is to advertise.

We are not opposed to advertising. Subsection (1)(b) of the clause would allow a district council to continue to permit an identification sign on a private hire vehicle under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. A sign could be placed anywhere on the cab door but it could not be illuminated. This would protect the public. It would also protect large private hire firms that wanted only to carry on their business. If, however, a driver is returning from a journey and someone jumps into the vehicle, is it realistic to expect the driver to refuse to accept that passenger? This is why previous attempts have fallen down. There was no deterrent. It is no good the House passing legislation that merely reads nicely. If there is no deterrent, no one will take any notice of it.

Subsection (2) of the new clause lays down for anyone guilty of an offence a penalty of a fine not exceeding £200 and a daily fine of £20 if he continues to contravene the new clause. That is not unreasonable when one considers the fares that can be obtained illegally when people wish to use cabs.

9.30 pm

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) mentioned the demise of the taxi trade. The clause is concerned with one of the reasons why the taxi trade is failing. It seems reasonable, in the interests of the public, that someone seeing a vehicle with an illuminated light should know that it is a taxi cab plying for hire and not a private car in which he can be "ripped off" without knowing. The new clause seeks to make clear the difference between cabs plying for hire and private hire cars that can go about their business and advertise but will not be mixed up with cabs.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I apologise to my colleagues who have sat through long hours in Committee and today's Report stage.

I should perhaps declare an interest since the new clause refers to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. I was the principal author of part II of the Act and was responsible for getting on to the statute hook the present legislation concerning hackney carriages and private hire vehicles. I was able to get part II into the 1976 Act because it was supported in Committee by the members of the then Opposition. I hope that Government members tonight will extend the same hands across the sea to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) when it comes to a vote.

I should like to remind the House of the hornets' nest across which I stumbled, perhaps unwittingly, in 1976. As soon as I put down amendments to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I was inundated with vehemently angry letters from hackney carriage drivers complaining of the activities of private hire operators, private hire owners and private hire drivers. Their first criticism was that the licensing system operated at that time for hackney carriages but did not operate for private hire vehicles. That was overcome in the 1976 Act.

The second main source of anger was the restriction upon fare rates that hackney carriages could charge and the complete freedom—Conservative Members would call it the entrepreneurial spirit—of private enterprise operating private hire cars. On the one hand, restricted rates were set down by local authorities for hackney carriages and, on the other, there was complete freedom of the market for private hire vehicles. That remains the position.

The third main source of anger is that the signs used by private hire vehicles are intended to convince the public that they are hackney carriages. Private hire operators have the same rights as anyone to advertise their business, but the purpose of an illuminated sign on the roof of the vehicle is to convince the public that it is a hackney carriage.

The results are obvious in the correspondence in my local newspaper, in which irate members of the public have complained about private hire vehicles displaying a lighted sign late at night—when perhaps more policemen are around in the centre of Leicester—and driving past those seeking to hire them. The sign is solely intended to deceive the public.

I wish that we could have done this in 1966, but I have mentioned the concordat which operated in Committee between the then Government and the Opposition. One reason was that the then Opposition were not prepared to support the restrictions that my hon. Friend now seeks to introduce.

I fully agree with the words in subsection (1)(b) of the clause that private hire vehicles may have signs, although not illuminated, on the side doors, and, or, the rear of the vehicle below the window line of the said vehicle". That would enable the operator legitimately to advertise but without misleading the public.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the new clause and I hope that Tory Members will support it.

Mr. Leadbitter

I detect an agreeable disposition in the Government's approach which seems likely to end today's debate in a satisfying way.

There is a good deal of sense in the clause. We should have regard to the investment of taxi drivers. I can only go by what London taxi drivers tell me, but I think that it costs about £7,000 to finance a new London taxi. We have a responsibility to protect those whom we license to ply for hire and who provide a community service. The habits of licensing authorities differ, but generally taxi drivers in the provinces are obliged to wait on agreed taxi ranks. To that extent, they are not plying for hire in the fullest sense.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Yes, they are.

Mr. Leadbitter

I said that this happens in some places. It happens in my constituency.

Mr. Marshall

"Plying for hire" does not apply simply to vehicles in motion. It also applies to stationary vehicles. When the hackney carriage is on the rank, it is still plying for hire.

Mr. Leadbitter

That confirms my point—that the efforts of taxi drivers are negatived by private hire cars which drive around town creaming off the trade of the licence holder, whether he is plying from a mobile or a static position. A man who invests to satisfy the licensing conditions of a local authority about the standard and maintenance of his vehicle and about his compliance with passenger safety requirements is at a disadvantage when compared with the private hire operator who uses his private car supplemented by a temporary, illuminated sign showing his telephone number on the top of his car. That sign indicates to the innocent passer-by that he is possibly a taxi driver. The private hire operator has invested much less than the taxi owner.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) dealt adequately with the provisions of the clause. The clause seeks not to change the law but simply to make it more enforceable and effective. The Opposition do not say that the private hire car is illegal. We are simply saying "Horses for courses". Let us make it abundantly clear that "private hire" means exactly what is suggested by the clause and that the community realises the difference between the private hire operator and the man who has been licensed by a local authority and is plying for hire. That being so, the common sense of the clause should satisfy the purposes and interests of both private hire operators and the owners and drivers of taxis as well as those of the community. I detect a sense of agreement from the Government Benches on this issue. I hope that my sense of the matter is correct.

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

I represent a considerable number of taxi drivers in the London area who are concerned that they should be protected. Taxi drivers who are licensed should be able to continue their work. I am particularly concerned about what will happen with vehicles with a passenger capacity of eight or fewer people which are able to move between London stations such as Victoria and Charing Cross.

Under the proposed legislation, people can be carried in such vehicles. That gives little chance to the licensed trade to operate in the way that it has done for many years. I make that vital point because we are talking about the livelihood of the licensed operators. They provide an important and specific service as part of London's transport system, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give serious consideration to that point.

Mr. Bidwell

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) is to be congratulated on taking the opportunity to enlist the sympathy of the Government, through the medium of the Bill, to remove an anomaly in the 1976 Act. That is the best way to describe the situation. I do not believe that what has gone on since 1976 in the car hire business was intended.

In my capacity as a sponsored member of the Transport and General Workers Union, apart from looking after the interests of those in my union who work in the passenger carrying business, I have also been asked to look at the position of taxi drivers who are still members of the Transport and General Workers Union. I believe that in London most of them are now in the owner-drivers' organisation, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association. I have met members of that association and have conferred with the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) on more than one occasion. Recently he and I took part in a London Weekend Television programme which highlighted some of the questionable activities of some of those engaged in the car hire business. This applied particularly to London, with the charging of extortionate fares and so forth.

9.45 pm

At one stage the hackney cab drivers did not like the growth of the minicab trade. They have learnt to live with it now and accept the role of the legitimate car hire business. However, hackney cab drivers have to carry overheads and maintain standards under the law in London, supervised by the Home Office. They are not allowed to charge what they like. Their fare increases are negotiated and they have to undertake continual negotiations to obtain recognition of the extent of their overheads in an attempt to secure improvements in their conditions. These requirements do not apply to the car hire business.

Something has, therefore, gone out of balance. The hackney cab drivers are owed something. They provide great support for the tourist industry. They seek only fair play, and the clause goes some way towards that. If the Minister accepts it, he will be the pin-up boy of the cab trade tonight.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) for initiating this short debate on this important point. It has shown that there is widespread interest in the problems of taxi drivers. My right hon. Friend the Minister and I have not forgotten the interests of the taxi drivers in bringing forward the Bill. We have had regular meetings with various representatives of the taxi trade. They have voiced considerable fears about the implications of the Bill, and we have gone out of our way to try to reassure them that Ministers in the Department and the Government generally do not intend to damage the interests of the taxi trade.

We all respect the part that the cabs play in the transport system. At any time of day or night a taxi can be hoarded by a passenger, who can have complete confidence that the driver is a respectable and reputable person and that the fare that he will charge will be strictly related to the mileage covered. These drivers operate under rigorous conditions which would put them in some ways at a disadvantage with other sectors of the trade were unfettered competition to be allowed.

No one disputes the right of the private hire car operator to pursue his business. But the taxi drivers are full of complaints, as the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) said and as has been brought to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Word, North (Mr. Bendall) on at least one occasion, about the unfair basis upon which they often find themselves competing with hire cars.

The issues in the new clause cover one of the problems that taxi drivers say that they face repeatedly at the moment. In many cities it is difficult to distinguish between taxis and hire cars because hire car operators have developed the practice of putting illuminated signs on the roofs of their vehicles. That is particularly so in provincial cities where hire cars are not distinctive large black vehicles but are saloon cars of the same kind as those used by hackney carriage operators.

I shall not allow myself to be drawn into what the hon. Member for Leicester, South said about private car hire operators deliberately intending that their signs should look like those of taxis. However, that is a firmly-held belief among members of the taxi trade. The Act with which the hon. Member was involved allowed local authorities to restrict roof signs. However, it also allowed for an appeal to the magistrates against the decision of the authority. In a number of cases recently private hire car operators have appealed and have been successful in two-thirds of the appeals. The result is that the legislation passed by the previous Parliament does not give the protection to the taxi drivers that they feel they deserve.

As I said earlier, this is largely a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but we have consulted the Home Office because this new clause has considerable appeal to my Department. We are anxious to try to give some indication to the taxi drivers that our aims are not hostile to them and that we accept their distinctive place in the passenger network. Therefore, it is possible that we may be able to meet the main purposes of the new clause. However, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central will not be surprised if I say that the drafting of it is defective and needs to be improved.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Does the Minister recognise that the Bill applies only to areas outside London? Will the clause apply to the metropolis as well as to areas outside London?

Mr. Clarke

I undertake to consult my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on that point, and I shall draw his attention to it. It is a point that is strongly felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North and the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell). Subject to those consultations, the Government propose to move amendments in another place that will meet the objects of paragraphs (a) and (c)—to restrict roof signs on vehicles capable of carrying fewer than eight passengers and used to carry passengers for hire or reward, and to make sure that vehicles used for car-sharing exercises do not carry similar offending signs.

Paragraph (b) is sweeping in its possible application, and at least one hon. Member has said that we are attempting to stamp out signs for private hire cars. Illuminated signs, so long as they are of a kind that would not be confused with a hackney carriage sign, would be perfectly legitimate. I am not anxious to adopt the spirit of paragraph (b), but, subject to further discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends, and subject to the advice of those involved, the Government hope to meet the substance of the new clause in another place.

Mr. Cowans

Until now the Minister has ignored subsection (2). It is no good passing legislation unless there is some form of deterrent. If the Minister accepts the spirit of the Bill, does he also accept the spirit of deterrence?

Mr. Clarke

If we proscribe signs on vehicles, it follows that there must be some sort of penalty when that directive is not obeyed. There have been references to previous declaratory statements in the Transport Act 1968 which proved to be ineffective in practice because they were not enforceable. We seek to avoid that. The final form of the Bill must be the responsibility of the Ministers who are involved. I give an undertaking that the Government will seek to meet the spirit of the new clause in another place. I hope that in the light of that assurance the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central will seek to withdraw his clause.

Mr. Cowans

In view of the helpful words of the Minister, and on the assurance that wisdom has not fallen upon stony ground, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration of the Bill adjourned.—[Mr. Newton.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee) to be further considered tomorrow.

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