Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes), who made an excellent speech. The account of his and others’ experience on licensing committees is extremely helpful and useful.
I also commend the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who has been an excellent driver of this Bill. He has successfully piloted it this far, and I wish him every success in getting it through Parliament. I share his commendation of former Ministers, particularly the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who fought very hard to get this on the statute book some years ago. I am delighted we are here this morning.
Without repeating the many excellent points that have been made, I will address the important point made by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild). It was one of the issues raised when the Bill was talked out three years ago, when I was slightly frustrated not only by the fact it was not able to proceed but more by the fact I was not able to respond to some of the points that were made that day. I addressed some of those points in Committee, because I think it is important that we understand that this is not a draconian attack on people who have offended. The balance between national regulation and local discretion is really important, and it is a delicate issue. There are reasons why it is important to use local knowledge and expertise.
Exactly as the hon. Member for Darlington said, nothing in this Bill changes the ability of local representatives to use their knowledge and discretion to make decisions. The key point is that it gives them extra information to allow them to make a better-informed decision, which is an important point to get across.
I will briefly reflect on some wider issues. I was struck that last week the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) moved the Second Reading of the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Bill, which says to me there is a need for wider, broader legislation in the taxi and private hire world.
If the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings were here today, he would refer back to the report he commissioned from Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq some three or four years ago, which the Select Committee on Transport and others discussed at length. The professor made 34 recommendations, and I am slightly concerned it has taken us so long to do so little. Exactly as has been said, the world out there changes very quickly. When I embarked on this process four or five years ago, we were still in the relatively early days of app-based travel. Here we are, four years on, and we are still trying to plug one of those loopholes. Goodness me, the world has changed in that time, and it will change again.
I very much hope that, at some point in the future, we will have a comprehensive piece of legislation, and I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) on the Front Bench because I suspect he will have something to say about that. We really need that, because so many issues have still not been addressed, particularly the vexed issue of cross-border hire, which has been mentioned a number of times. I am afraid that the Bill is only a small piece of legislation in the face of the challenges that exist.
I very much agreed with the comments about the excellent work being done by so many people out there. They have had a hard time during the pandemic, and I am not sure that there are still 345,000 of them, as there were a couple of years ago. I was struck by conversations that I had with representatives of some of the taxi and private hire firms in my own area—Panther Taxis in particular—who were ruing the fact that during the pandemic a number of their best and most experienced people were drifting away, leaving the industry and going off to do other things. That, I am afraid, is partly because some of the support schemes, welcome though they were, were patchy, and different local authorities applied them in different ways. In some cases, it depended on whether drivers were registered in an area, or whether they lived in an area.
Local discretion is important, but I think that overall the feeling in the sector is that the support did not always come through, which has meant the loss of a large number of drivers. I am told—and I think anyone travelling here this morning will be well aware of this—that London is still quieter than before, and that has a knock-on effect. Yesterday I was talking to Steve McNamara of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, who told me that the London black cab fleet is nearly 40% electric—which is a huge achievement to which we should pay tribute, although obviously there is more to be done—but the number of registered cabs, which was 18,000 before the pandemic, is still only about 14,000, so there is more to be done in that regard as well.
Let me end by again paying tribute to the huge number of people in this sector. There is a danger, when we talk about the problems in a sector, that we begin to think that all the people in that sector are breaking the rules. They are not: as has already been said, the vast majority provide a fantastic service, often for people with disabilities, which is why I think the Bill proposed last week—the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Bill—was so important. These people do a brilliant job in all our communities throughout the country. I also pay tribute, as others have done, to those who make the licensing system work: the local councillors, who often have to make quite difficult decisions, and, of course, the enforcement officers and their officials who back them up.
This is a great sector, it works very well and the Bill will make it work better, but there is still more to be done.