Friday, March 02, 2012

Taxi And Private Hire Safety Debate

Norman Baker (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Regional and Local Transport), Transport; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I thank my hon. Friend Richard Fuller for raising this important subject of taxi and private hire vehicle safety, and for securing the time to allow us to debate the issues. This debate comes at a time when there have been a number of very serious alleged assaults on and by taxi drivers, and that is a matter of great concern.

Licensing authorities will do their best, I am sure, but the unfortunate fact remains that taxis and private hire vehicles can never be perfectly safe. They are often hired from isolated places at night; drivers carry cash; and, self-evidently, taking a taxi or private hire vehicle generally involves getting into a car with a stranger. That combination of factors makes drivers and passengers particularly vulnerable to violence, and it is important that we take what steps we can to minimise the risks.

In looking at safety, we normally focus on the passenger’s perspective, but my hon. Friend quite rightly refers to the dangers that exist for drivers as well. A report from the Department in 2007 found that on average three drivers a year are killed unlawfully.

Each crime is of course unacceptable, but it is worth putting into context the fact that journeys in taxis and private hire vehicles account for just over 1% of all journeys per person per year, and that is 700 million journeys or 3.5 billion miles per year. That, of course, is of no comfort to those who are subject to the unwarranted and unprovoked attacks to which my hon. Friend referred.

Let me look at how we might make the experience safer for the passenger and driver, starting with the passenger. First, local authorities, as licensing authorities, are obliged to ensure that only those who are “fit and proper”—the term in law—should be licensed as taxi or private hire vehicle drivers, and it falls to individual councils to ensure that that is the case.

The Criminal Records Bureau check is a central element of that assessment process. A number of organisations have raised with me their concerns that some taxi drivers have only a standard criminal record check because the law does not allow for all of them to have enhanced checks. Enhanced criminal record checks
include any relevant local police information, in addition to a record of previous criminal convictions, cautions and warnings, but those checks have, in law, been restricted to drivers who work regularly with vulnerable adults or with children.

I agree that licensing authorities should be able to see enhanced criminal record checks in respect of all taxi and private hire vehicle driver licence applicants, regardless of the type of work that they intend to undertake once licensed, and I have been working closely with colleagues in the Home Office and, in particular, with my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, who announced in January that all taxi and private hire vehicle drivers will be entitled to enhanced criminal record checks. The necessary legislative change has now been made by the Home Office, and today I can confirm that it will come into force on 26 March.

The Minister for Equalities announced also that licensing authorities will be entitled to check whether any applicant is barred from working with children or with vulnerable adults under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. That is a good example of the Government listening to the experts and acting accordingly. Licensing officers have told us that they need to be able to see enhanced criminal record checks in order to make a proper assessment of applicants’ suitability, and we are responding by providing them with the tools that they need to carry out that vital task.

There is also a growing need for information about licensed vehicles, a point that my hon. Friend helpfully made in his lucid comments. That information enables the public to verify immediately whether a given vehicle is licensed, and it helps with the “traceability” trail.

There is a difficulty when it involves personal information relating to individuals, but that is a matter for local authorities to weigh up against their wider obligations and considerations, including, under the Data Protection Act 1998, the protection of personal information.
I am happy to say, however, that I am aware of Transport for London’s vehicle-checker facility, which enables the public to input a vehicle registration plate and discover whether the vehicle is actually licensed as a private hire vehicle.

That is a helpful facility, and I for one cannot see why licensing authorities should hold back on providing such information. As I was aware that my hon. Friend might raise that matter, I spoke to a leading national licensing organisation just yesterday and said that I thought it ought to respond positively to requests for vehicle licensing information, if not proactively put it on its website. It agreed, and said that it would disseminate that message to its member authorities.

I move on to the hugely important issue of drivers’ personal safety. I was very sorry to learn of the incidents in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I extend my sympathies and those of the Government to those who have been subject to serious assaults there and elsewhere, and perhaps particularly to the family of the 61-year-old grandfather to whom he referred. I was particularly horrified by my hon. Friend’s description of the range of weapons that are sometimes used against drivers who are simply going about their lawful business.

It is intolerable that they should be subject to attacks such as he described. The lack of respect to which he referred is clearly an important factor to be taken into account.

I turn to the questions that my hon. Friend asked. I agree with him that there is a problem of perception. We will examine the parallel position of doormen, to which he referred, to see whether there are lessons that might be sensibly transferred across.

My hon. Friend asked about statistics. Because licensing is largely a local function—it has been since 1847 or before—there is not the depth of national statistics that he or I might like. However, we will talk to the statisticians to see what is available, and I will write to him to let him know. We will also consider whether the statistics that are available in different places might be accumulated to give us a better picture of what is happening. Of course, local authorities may hold information, and I will ask my officials to talk to the national body of licensing officers to see whether it has information that might throw a light on the matter and what else might usefully be done.

If there is information such as he mentioned, I will happily share it with the Prime Minister’s team that is examining the alcohol strategy and with the Home Office more generally in respect of the crime statistics that it collects. I certainly agree that it might be useful to track criminal attacks on private hire vehicle and taxi drivers more formally.

I am familiar with the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, because I was on the Bill Committee when it was taken through Parliament. It was a useful Act. I am not aware that it has been applied directly in cases such as we are discussing, but I am happy to ensure that my colleagues at the Home Office are made aware of my hon. Friend’s comments and concerns on that matter and others affecting them. I will write to the relevant Minister to make him or her aware of the contents of today’s debate and my hon. Friend’s comments, including those relating to the Act.

My hon. Friend mentioned CCTV. Any decision to install it in cabs or elsewhere must of course involve clarity about the purpose of doing so. It is important to consider carefully its potential contribution towards achieving that purpose, the costs and whether the intrusion into individual privacy is appropriate and proportionate. CCTV in taxis and private hire vehicles is by its nature intrusive, putting law-abiding people under surveillance and recording their movements, although it might be argued that individuals accept that by flagging down a taxi or booking a private hire vehicle.

CCTV can be effective in both preventing and detecting crime and antisocial behaviour, and owners and drivers of vehicles understandably often want to install security measures to protect the driver. However, there is a balance to be struck, not least given the Data Protection Act’s provisions on the processing of personal data. Nevertheless, the personal security of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers and staff clearly needs to be considered as well.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires local authorities and others to consider crime and disorder
reduction while exercising all their duties. The Department’s best practice guidance suggests that the installation and use of appropriate safety measures is best left to the judgment of the owners and drivers themselves, but we would encourage licensing authorities to look sympathetically on, or actively encourage, measures that protect drivers.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Protection of Freedoms Bill is being considered in another place. The Bill includes provisions further to regulate CCTV and other surveillance camera systems. Those provisions include the introduction of a statutory surveillance camera systems code of practice and the appointment of a surveillance camera commissioner to encourage compliance, provide advice and information, and monitor the code’s effectiveness. I will maintain an interest in the development of the code to ensure that CCTV associated with public transport, including taxis, is addressed appropriately.

Drivers can use a range of other security measures to improve their personal safety, including conflict avoidance training. The Department has issued guidance for taxi and PHV drivers about how best to protect themselves, and that is on the Department’s website.

Clearly, enforcement is a hot topic. I commend Transport for London’s Safer Travel at Night campaign, which aims to reduce the number of cab-related sexual offences by raising awareness of the dangers of using unbooked minicabs, also known as touts, and illegal cabs.

It also involves targeted police and enforcement activity to identify, disrupt and deter illegal cab activity. Transport for London has, through a sustained effort, made great strides in reducing cab-related sexual offences and instances of touting, although I accept that there remains an outstanding concern relating to pedicabs, which are outwith the PHV and taxi licensing system.

More generally, I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend said, the Law Commission has agreed to undertake a comprehensive review of the law governing taxis and PHVs. The fact that taxis outside London are licensed under an Act of 1847, and those inside London under an Act dating from 1869, speaks volumes. The Law Commission is a body dedicated to, and expert in, unravelling complex and archaic legislation and replacing it with modern, simplified legislation, and I hope that it will take on board issues relating to safety as part of its work.

The commission embarked on the review in July 2011, it will be consulting in the spring, and it will provide us with a report and draft Bill in November 2013.