Charles Walker leads debate in support of London’s Black Cab trade

Charles Walker calls for London’s taxi regulations to be properly enforced to ensure the city’s licensed and regulated black cab taxi drivers, who have invested heavily to learn the ‘knowledge’ and comply with strict safety regulations, do not lose out to newcomers exploiting lax regulatory enforcement and brazenly ignoring the rules.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is a great honour to have secured this debate. I am also delighted to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I know that in your capacity as Member of Parliament for Epping Forest you have done a great deal for the licensed taxi trade, and particularly the black cab licensed taxi trade. Indeed, you and I have worked closely together on this matter over a number of years, and we will continue to do so.

The much-loved London black cab is not an overnight sensation. Hackney coaches first appeared in London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and Captain John Baily, a veteran of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions, is thought to have established the first Hackney rank by the Maypole on the Strand—a site from which four coaches worked. The first laws governing what is now known as the taxi trade were introduced nearly four centuries ago, with London’s cab trade being continuously licensed since 1694. Control is now in the hands of Transport for London. The practice of displaying an identification number goes back to 1654 and despite a number of modifications, the principle of that practice remains consistent to this day—isn’t tradition a wonderful thing?

At the age of 45, James Howe, an experienced cabbie, was chosen to drive London’s first motor taxicab. He enjoyed a long association with both horse-drawn and motor cabs and, in 1933, at the age of 75, he was awarded a special badge commemorating a career that began when he earned his licence in 1884. You and I love the concept of hands across history, Madam Deputy Speaker, and at least two Members of this House were alive at the time that James Howe received his long-service medal. Is that not a wonderful thought?

The fitting of taximeters was made compulsory in 1907 and the inventor of these meters was a German noble called Baron von Thurn und Taxis. A taximeter is by definition what makes a cab a taxicab, and taximeters in London calculate the fare payable as a combination of time and distance. I thought that it would be useful in my opening remarks to set the scene for the House.

Transport for London licenses taxis and their drivers under the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and the London Cab Order 1934, so there is not a lot of modernity there. The minicab trade in London is licensed by regulations made under the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, which is very recent history. I thank Addison Lee for the useful briefing it provided me on the regulation of its private hire business and those of its competitors.

As we know in this place, all licensed London black cab drivers are required to do the knowledge. We see those amazing men, and now women, beetling around London on their scooters with a clipboard in front of them, learning all these wonderful routes around our wonderful capital city. That is a gruelling three, four or five-year exercise undertaken by aspirant black cab drivers, most of them while holding down a full-time job. They show extreme dedication. It is an extremely gruelling process, with drop-out rates between 70% and 75% on average, and those that pass the test have covered approximately 20,000 miles worth of routes. These men and women are the best of the very best that London has to offer. Having passed the knowledge, a newly qualified driver needs to buy or lease a cab. The cost of new taxis is quite high, often in excess of £42,000, so that is a major investment.

No vehicle over 15 years of age is licensed and the Mayor is keen to see that number reduced to 10 years, as he wants to promote a clean air environment in our capital city. The Mayor has a duty to ensure that he only grants licences to those people who are “fit and proper” to drive a taxi. Drivers are required to be insured and CRB checked and to have a financial standing check. How many of us in this place could cope with the level of scrutiny needed for a financial standing check? My word!

All London taxis—this is very important—are wheelchair accessible and have been required to be so since January 2000. That 100% accessibility compares with only 3% of private hire vehicles. Importantly, licensed black cabs are the only taxi service permitted to pick up passengers without advance booking and the only service permitted to use a meter, with Transport for London setting the level of fares that can be charged. Of course, there are problems. If there were not, we would not be here this evening. This is not a totally good news story.

In its recent review of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing, the Law Commission called for the retention of the two-tier licensing system, and I strongly endorse that.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I sought his permission to intervene before the debate. My introduction to the London taxi was when I became a Member. Taxi drivers in London—I am sure that they are the same across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—have an opinion on all the things that are happening in the world. It is obvious to me from conversations with the London taxi drivers that they are very concerned about the changes to licensing. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns on their behalf and agree that a full consultation must take place with the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association to find a way forward that can bring them on board?

Mr Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a precise intervention. The Law Commission also called for significant changes to the legal distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles on the grounds that the current system relies too heavily on an imprecise concept of “plying for hire”, which is not defined in statute and has become the subject of a body of case law that is not wholly consistent. In that lies a multitude of problems.

Victoria Borwick (Kensington) (Con): I declare a slight interest, as my husband was running the company that made the taxis when they became fully accessible to the disabled. I have spoken before about my concern for the disabled, so may I ask first whether my hon. Friend agrees that only fully accessible taxis should be allowed to ply for hire on the streets of London? Does he also agree that all vehicles should be subject to the same stringent standards and regulations as our gold standard taxi fleet?

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Disability access is fundamental to the licensed taxi trade and marks it out, which is to be celebrated and promoted.

The Law Commission recommends a single consolidated legislative framework throughout England and Wales, including London. As I have said, many of the regulations governing the licensed taxi trade—the black cab trade—are well over 100 years old, and even the most recent regulations covering private hire vehicles are 17 years old.

The Law Commission is pressing—this goes to the heart of my hon. Friend’s intervention—for the introduction of common national minimum standards for vehicles, drivers and dispatchers, and those standards would be determined by the Secretary of State. In essence, the shorthand of the Law Commission’s report is that the current system is a mess and is being abused.

This debate is underpinned by an absolute and inescapable truth, namely that if we want a regulated black cab and private hire vehicle trade that is both sustainable and commercially viable, we have got to enforce the regulations we create. If we do not enforce them, we create a virtual free-for-all where the unregulated and the unscrupulous prosper at the expense of those whose professional livelihood depends on them following the rules. London is an example of what that free-for-all looks like, with illegal taxi ranks, unlicensed vehicles, unlicensed drivers, uninsured drivers and illegal touting for business. That does not reflect well on our great city.

The Mayor is trying to do something about it. He deals with 1,200 new minicab licences a month. I spoke to him this evening and he told me that there were 450 just last week. This is an overwhelming challenge. His Transport for London compliance team and the Metropolitan Police Service cab enforcement unit have few of the powers they need to make a real difference, such as powers of arrest and the power to seize and destroy vehicles.

Throughout the first 21 days of TfL’s ongoing crackdown, it has advised 2,625 private hire vehicle drivers to move on and keep the roads clear; reported 151 for not having a badge; reported a further 999 for not wearing their badge; issued 439 parking tickets; reported 15 private hire vehicle drivers for plying for hire; and reported 210 for parking on taxi ranks.

Those are impressive numbers, but I am afraid they are not backed up by impressive sanctions. For example, the 151 drivers reported for not having a badge were prevented from working for the remainder of the evening. Did they stop? I doubt it. Are the sanctions I have just listed a deterrent to illegality? Of course not. In New York just a few weeks ago, they seized 500 Uber vehicles for breaking the law, but that does not happen in London.

Into this maelstrom of collective regulatory failure rides Uber. Of course, a lot of PR nonsense is being talked about Uber and its “disruptive” technology changing the face of travel in London. Disruptive technology sounds glamorous and exciting, and if I had a choice I would always prefer to have my activities identified as being disruptive, as opposed to borderline illegal. In reality, all Uber is doing is equipping another fleet of barely regulated and unqualified drivers to ply their trade in the capital, with little or no thought given to how the drivers it enables conduct themselves.

To be fair, who can blame Uber’s savvy business leaders for recognising lax to non-existent regulatory enforcement and then exploiting it? What is the downside? There is none, because the rules are not enforced, but they should be because they say that only licensed black cabs can operate a meter. “To hell with that,” says Uber: “We’ll operate a meter but cunningly, like Baldrick, not call it a meter.” The rules say that private hire firms must have physical premises. “We’ll ignore that rule, too,” says Uber. The rules say cars for private hire must be pre-booked via an office. “No, that’s one not for us either,” says Uber. The rules say that private hire firms must have systems in place to protect customer and driver data. “So what?” says Uber, “Who’s going to check up on that?”

I want to be clear. I want to derive reassurance from a licensed and regulated black cab taxi trade. Of course it is not a perfect trade, but it is a very good one. I want to know that when my children are out in London they will always have the option of easily finding a black cab to take them home or back to the place they are staying. I want to know that they will pay the price on the meter, not a meter price artificially inflated through surge pricing, as Uber drivers did during the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis and in London by 300% during last week’s Tube strike—thank you, Uber, thank you for nothing.

I want to know that my children are being driven by a professional with four years of training, because my children’s safety is important to me. I want to know that my children are being driven by someone who is CRB checked and insured. I want to know that London will become, and remain, increasingly disability friendly, so that people in wheelchairs are not left on street corners waiting for the 3% or less of private hire vehicles that can take a wheelchair.

I accept that there may be others who do not hold to these values. So let me be clear: if they want a free-for-all, let us have a genuine free-for-all. Let us release black cab drivers and Addison Lee drivers, for example, from the cost and burden of regulation. Let us allow them to drive any cheap piece of rubbish they can lay their hands on. Who cares if London is no longer home to a fleet of disability-enabled taxis? Surely that is a small price to pay for the benefit of Uber’s “disruptive” technology? Let us scale back CRB checks and any other safety requirements. It is the passenger’s tough luck if things go wrong—my children, perhaps, should have made a wiser choice. Why should fares not be left to the discretion of the driver? Only the fools will pay the higher rates and that is their punishment for being stupid, weak, old or frail. What does it matter if London’s reputation starts to suffer internationally? There are plenty of suckers out there who will not be deterred. Let me be clear: that is not the London I want to live in, but unless we take regulatory enforcement seriously, I fear it is the one we are going to get.

Finally, I say this: if we want a regulated environment that creates costs to entry and considerable costs of operation, but with the benefit of significant safeguards and high levels of service, we have to allow those that we regulate the space in which to make a return on their investment of time and capital. For 400 years, London has recognised the need to have properly regulated and licensed taxi services. I suggest that our illustrious predecessors were not fools in this matter. London cannot have it both ways. It can try, but it will end in tears.

10.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on securing this debate on London’s licensed taxi trade, which he presented in his usual passionate way. I know that many taxi drivers reside in his constituency, as indeed they do in yours, Madam Deputy Speaker. By the way, before we get any further, may I make it clear that I will be travelling home tonight on two wheels? The only carbon dioxide I will be producing will have come from my own lungs.

Before I respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend, it is perhaps worth taking the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on regulating the taxi and private hire vehicle industry. The Government are responsible for creating the legislative framework within which local licensing authorities license taxis and private hire vehicles. In London, responsibility for licensing rests with Transport for London. It is Transport for London’s responsibility to decide who is a suitable person to hold a taxi or private hire vehicle driver’s licence, or a private hire operator’s licence.

Jim Shannon: Just last Thursday, in the middle of the tube strike, I took a taxi from here to Paddington. The taxi driver informed me that on eBay it is possible to purchase a driver’s licence and permit without any regulation. The hon. Member for Broxbourne said the same in his speech. Is the Minister aware of this and, if so, what steps can be taken to stop it?

Mr Goodwill: That would be illegal. Criminal record checks, and all the other checks that need to be made before somebody can ply their trade as a private hire driver, need to be carried out, so that would certainly be an illegal transaction.

It is the job of Transport for London to ensure that all its licensees comply with the rules and regulations that govern their industry. I understand my hon. Friend’s desire to raise these concerns on the Floor of the House, but as licensing is the responsibility of TfL, while I might be able to address his points, it is within TfL’s remit to act if necessary.

The taxi industry has played a key role in keeping London moving for many years and has a fine heritage. The addition of the private hire sector has helped to ensure that this form of transport is available to all, particularly supporting those who cannot rely on other public transport services. TfL licenses some 22,200 taxis and 66,200 private hire vehicles making 300,000 trips every day. These vehicles make a vital contribution to London’s economy and help to keep the city moving 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The availability of both taxis and private hire vehicles offers the travelling public real choice. They can either instantly hire a taxi on the street or at a taxi rank, or they can pre-book a taxi or private hire vehicle. When pre-booking, passengers can make an informed choice based on factors such as price, availability and quality.

Victoria Borwick: The Minister makes an important point about quantity. We are talking about the free flow of London traffic, and although we have seen this explosion in the number of private hire vehicles, it cannot be said to contribute to the smooth running of London or to reducing pollution levels in London. When considering legislation or regulation, I hope he might consider whether we need all these private hire vehicles. Are they not just polluting and clogging up our streets? As he said, he is fortunate to be healthy enough to ride a bicycle, for which I commend him, but he will be breathing in the fumes of all these private hire vehicles.

Mr Goodwill: Some local authorities limit the number of licences they issue, but that is not the case in London. My hon. Friend makes a valid point about how the number of vehicles circulating looking for trade can increase congestion and pollution—and let us not go into the issue of bicycle rickshaws.

London’s tax service is recognised as one of the best in the world, with high vehicle standards, including disabled access and skilled drivers. By learning the world-famous “knowledge” of London, London taxi drivers earn the unique right to ply for hire on the streets of the capital. Private hire vehicles offer a different service, also with high standards, but allowing the customer to choose who they travel with. This combination of taxi and private hire ensures that the needs of as many Londoners as possible can be met. Indeed, while it is easy to flag down a taxi in central London, one would have to wait a long time for a black cab to drive by in some of the suburbs.

The traditional London taxi, or black cab, has become an icon of the city, but time does not stand still and the market is changing. New technologies are providing new ways of engaging taxis and private hire vehicles, and the industry must adapt. Smartphone booking apps are now available for both taxis and private hire vehicles, offering passengers real choice, including faster pick-ups and options for sharing, which can reduce the cost for travellers.

With change, however, come challenges, and TfL, along with other licensing authorities in the country, is faced with the challenge of accommodating 21st century technology in 19th century legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne might be aware that TfL has recently completed a consultation on the regulations that govern private hire vehicles in the capital. This was in response to the developments in the industry I have described, including advances in technology and changes to how people engage and use private hire vehicles. The outcome of the consultation will be known later this year, and some of TfL’s proposals might address some of his constituents’ specific concerns. I hope they do.

I am aware of the major challenges to established businesses being presented by Uber and other new entrants to the market. I can understand the concern of my hon. Friend’s taxi-driving constituents. Like many people, I was made aware of Uber, following the taxi drivers’ protest on 11 June 2014—unfortunately providing priceless publicity for Uber. Indeed, some used Uber for the first time during that protest.

Uber London Ltd has been licensed by Transport for London as a private hire vehicle operator in London since 2012. The company has now applied for and been granted licences in 25 other licensing authorities in England. In order to be granted a licence, Uber must meet the same standards as any other privatised vehicle operator in the local authority area. Therefore 26 different authorities have decided that Uber is a fit and proper company.

I know that the London taxi trade fundamentally disagrees with the view of Transport for London on how Uber calculates a fare. Many members of the taxi trade consider Uber’s smartphone app to be essentially a taxi meter. Taxi meters are, of course, forbidden in London’s private hire vehicles. My hon. Friend may be aware that Transport for London has recognised that the law in respect of this issue is unclear and has applied to the High Court for a declaration. We must now let the court make its decision as the next step in the process.

My hon. Friend may be aware that last year the London Assembly transport committee began an investigation into taxi and private hire services in London. This scrutiny resulted in the transport committee making a number of recommendations to the Mayor and Transport for London on steps they could take to improve taxi and private hire services in London.

The committee was in some cases critical of the role of the taxi and private hire section of Transport for London and I understand that members of both London’s taxi and private hire vehicle trades gave evidence to this committee as to their dissatisfaction with Transport for London’s actions as the licensing authority. This committee is responsible for questioning and scrutinising the actions of the Mayor, and it is not for the Government to comment on local licensing matters or the actions of the Committee.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in 2012 the Department for Transport asked the Law Commission to conduct a review of taxi and private hire vehicle legislation. This was against the backdrop of the Government’s red tape challenge and legislation dating back to the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign and the age of horse-drawn Hackney carriages. As we have heard, the advent of the cab was very much earlier. Since that time, there has been additional legislation to allow for the regulation of private hire vehicles, but the law remains complex and outdated.

The Law Commission undertook a very comprehensive review and last year published its final report, which contained recommendations for a modern and simplified structure. The Law Commission’s report provided not only crucial analysis of the problems posed by the current law, but solutions designed to make a difference to both the travelling public and those who work in the industry. Updated and simplified legislation will provide a modern and simple framework, which will in turn ensure public safety and provide the trade with certainty, therefore making growth and competition easier. The Government are currently considering the Law Commission’s recommendations, and we will respond in due course.

It has to be said that the traditional London taxi is not the greenest or the most sophisticated vehicle on the road. Indeed, in April this year, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles announced the launch of a £45 million fund to support the roll-out of ultra-low emission taxis across the United Kingdom. This included setting aside £25 million specifically for the Greater London area to help taxi drivers cover the cost of upgrading to a greener vehicle. The Mayor of London has pledged an additional £40 million, which creates a £65 million fund to encourage the development of the cleanest and greenest taxi fleet in the world.

At the same time, Geely, the company that owns the iconic London Taxi Company, announced plans for a new £250 million state-of-the-art facility to produce the next generation of low-emission London taxis in Ansty, near Coventry. Geely was awarded £17 million from the Government’s regional growth fund to build the facility, which will create 1,000 new jobs and ensure that the London taxi continues to be designed, developed and made in the United Kingdom.

Those measures demonstrate the Government’s support for the taxi trade throughout the country, and mean that the London taxi trade will play a leading role as we meet our climate change obligations.

The Government are aware of the changing landscape of the taxi and private hire vehicle industry, and of the impact that new means of engaging services are having on traditional business models. The Government also support innovation in all sectors of business, including new ways of running businesses, the use of technology, and the sharing economy. There is room in this industry for small and large businesses alike, but, whatever their size, all new market entrants must operate within the legislative framework, ensuring safety and security for the travelling public.

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