George Freeman MP responds to debate on taxi and private hire licensing reform

3rd October 2019

George Freeman MP responds to and adjournment debate on the need for taxi and private hire licensing reform to respond to the urgency of the decarbonisation, digitalisation and automation revolutions and improve the safety of passengers; and ensure accessibility for those with disabilities.  

George Freeman MP speaking in the House of Commons, October 2019

It is a great pleasure and privilege to open the batting in my new role as Minister for the future of transport with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as umpire, even if not before a packed Chamber—I am more of a night watchman covering for the Minister for taxi regulation.

I thank the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for his kind words, and I congratulate him on his assiduous pursuit of this issue in his time in the House. I know how strongly he feels and how widely he is respected across the House for his work, particularly through his chairmanship of the all-party group on taxis, of which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are also a supporter. I know that you have taken a close interest in the issue.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate at the perfect time, as the Government are thinking about their legislative programme. I am particularly delighted to be responding on behalf of my noble Friend the taxis Minister and in my capacity as Minister for the future of transport—a new role at the Department for Transport—responsible for using our research and development budget, procurement and regulation to drive decarbonisation and digitalisation and to tackle disconnection in the Department.

As this debate and the hon. Gentleman’s work have shown, the 360,000 licensed taxi and private hire drivers in England play an important role in our transport system, meeting those journey needs that mass transit does not. They help people to reach shops and vital services and they get people home safely at night. As he and others highlighted and attested, they often offer those services to communities free of charge—gratis.

Taxis and private hire vehicles provide a particularly important service for disabled passengers, supporting their independence, allowing them to get to work, shop and visit friends and family—things that most of us are lucky enough to be able to do without a second thought. We know that disabled passengers make twice as many taxi and private hire journeys as non-disabled passengers. For those reasons and many others, the Government want the sector to thrive so that it can continue to meet the public’s needs and expectations.

There is clearly a problem. We agree with the comments made tonight and those made elsewhere in the House that the legislation that governs the taxi and private hire vehicles sector needs reform. That has been driven by a series of issues: the pace of innovation in mobility; the out-of-date nature of some of the legislation; the urgency of the decarbonisation, digitalisation and automation revolutions; the safety of passengers; and the need to ensure accessibility for those who suffer from disabilities.

Woking has introduced some class-beating emissions standards for vehicles. I am sure I am not alone in hoping the Minister might give some comfort to other towns and cities that they will also be able to have clean air from their taxis in the years ahead.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will touch on that later. Part of my work on the future mobility zones is to drive the power of future mobility to help support clean air.

The use of apps to book vehicles is increasingly popular with passengers and this, perhaps more than any other factor, has thrown into sharp focus the fact that legislation drafted in the 20th century for private hire vehicles, let alone Victorian taxi legislation, has not kept pace with technological change and progress in the sector. As with other forms of licensing, the sector is licensed at a very local level, with 284 licensing authorities in England setting the standards they feel appropriate for their area. Unlike other forms of licensing, however, those that are licensed are by the very nature of the trade mobile and so will occasionally operate outside the area that granted the licence.

The increased use of technology has also added to the complexity by making it far easier to book a private hire vehicle, thereby fuelling an increase in the number of licensed vehicles across England in recent years. Numbers are up by more than 58% since 2005. This growth has been driven primarily by an increase in private hire vehicles, which today make up over three quarters of the total. The sector is clearly providing a service that passengers value, but the level of this increase does raise serious issues.

Let me now say a word about what the Government have done, and what we will do. We have recognised the issues relating to the regulation of the sector. As the hon. Gentleman said, the previous Minister of State convened the task and finish group on taxi and PHV licensing. I echo the thanks of others for the work done by the members of the group, particularly its chair, Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq, who is with us this evening. The group considered submissions, and took oral evidence, from a wide range of stakeholders over a number of months.

Professor Abdel-Haq managed to draw out a commendable amount of consensus among group members, but the report also includes annexed contributions from individual group members, which identify the often complex areas of disagreement. A notable example is the question of what approach should be taken in tackling the issue of cross-border or out-of-area working. As I have said, this trade is mobile, and authorities do not have complete control over the drivers and vehicles that operate in their areas, which means that authorities with higher licensing requirements have concerns about the potential migration of their private hire vehicles to other authorities.

The Government welcomed the report in their response earlier this year, and made a commitment to legislate on a number of key matters: national minimum standards, national enforcement powers and a national licensing database. I believe that, taken together, those measures would enable passengers—wherever and whoever they might be—to know that their driver had passed a nationally agreed safety standard, and was working with robust oversight.

In the meantime, the Department is making full use of the tools that are currently available to shape and influence, doing what it can to support licensing authorities in the use of their extensive existing powers. In particular, passenger safety remains in the forefront of our minds. I know that many licensing authorities have learnt lessons from some of the previous licensing failures mentioned by the hon. Gentleman: Rotherham, Rossendale and Southampton—to name but a few—have reviewed their licensing functions, with a focus on robust safety measures. However, we must ensure that those lessons are clearly and strongly disseminated across the country, and that all licensing authorities have that focus.

Earlier this year, the Government consulted on draft statutory guidance for local authorities in England and Wales, describing their view on how taxi and PHV licensing powers should be used to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. The draft was the subject of extensive engagement, including a review by the task and finish group. We received more than 500 responses, very largely in support of the proposed measures, but also making valuable suggestions for improvement. Consultation serves an important purpose in securing wide and expert input, and that will be reflected in the final version of the guidance, which I am delighted to confirm will be issued very shortly. Licensing authorities will be required by law to have due regard to the guidance in formulating and implementing their licensing policies, and the Department will monitor its use and impact.

Baroness Vere, the Minister responsible for taxi and private hire vehicles, and I, as Minister for the future of transport, are well seized of the potential for technological innovation in transport to change the sector and fuel demand, and the likelihood that it will continue to blur the lines between different modes and challenge existing regulatory structures. As the Government said earlier this year in our response to the task and finish group report, in our work on the future of mobility we will consider how we can support new technology and innovation through regulatory frameworks. I am delighted to have this opportunity to announce to the House that I will shortly be launching a very wide consultation on the future of mobility, which will look into how existing and future transport systems can interact. In the long term, as part of our future of mobility review, we will consider how to introduce a regulatory framework which recognises the changes that the sector has undergone and can adapt to innovation.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is meeting the taxis Minister shortly to discuss these issues, and that, as I have said, he has raised them at a time when the Government are pulling together their final plans for the Queen’s Speech; it has been announced that it will take place on 14 October. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman in any future discussions.

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I am not currently an MP, as Parliament has been dissolved until after the General Election on 12th December 2019.

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