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House of Lords

Thursday, 30th May 2002.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Taxi Drivers: Licensing Checks

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why taxi drivers seeking to renew their licences now have to fill in an extra form costing £12, on top of the three-year licence fee of £120.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, taxi-licensing authorities now rely on the newly established Criminal Records Bureau rather than on local police forces to supply criminal record and related information about applicants for taxi-driver licences. Licence applicants must complete a special form requesting this information and the bureau imposes a fee of £12 in order to carry out the necessary checks.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Before asking my supplementary question, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on his new position as Chief Whip. He will have a particularly hard act to follow in the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Strange: My Lords, having been a very kind and thoughtful leader to us in Kazakhstan, I am sure that the noble Lord will be a very kind and thoughtful Chief Whip.

Does the Minister realise that there are some peculiarly intrusive questions in the form that taxi drivers have to fill in? Is he aware, and does he think, that it has anything to do with their ability to drive taxis that they should give their bank account number, with the sort code; that they should explain their marital status; and that they should give the maiden name of their mother?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not sure about the maiden name of their mother but I am sure that the information requested on the form is essential for the proper operation of the Criminal Record Bureau in exercising its responsibilities and duties. There is a long history to the introduction of this request for information; it goes back some 10 or 15 years. It is to ensure that we have proper levels of public safety and that people can be confident that when they get into a taxi cab the person is not only a competent driver but a safe person with whom to share a taxi cab. The public have benefited greatly from the use of information held on national registers and it is

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most important that high levels of public safety are maintained if the taxi business is successfully to sustain itself.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that London cabs, which are run by the Public Carriage Office, are considered the best in the world? On the whole, people are very pleased that additional checks are made. But these checks on criminal records are even more necessary for minicabs. Can the Minister tell the House when the minicab licensing process will operate as efficiently as we hoped it would when the legislation, which I steered through the House, was introduced?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there is no doubt that London hackney carriages are among the best in the world. I am sure that those Members of your Lordships' House who use them will give testament to that. The process for ensuring that minicabs are brought within the CRB regime is on track. The legislation was introduced in 1997-98, and my understanding is that the deadline for implementation of criminal record checks on drivers is 2005. That is the direct responsibility of the Transport for London board and the Mayor. A start has begun and operators now have to go through the CRB process. So the first phase of implementation is now in place. I understand that there have been detailed consultations with the organisations involved in minicabs and taxis across London in regard to the implementation date.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, further to the question of the noble Baroness, whose part in the passage of the legislation is well known and much admired, does not my noble friend agree that progress in London is depressingly slow and that the Mayor of London should be asked to get a move on, bearing in mind press reports that achievement of an all-licensing situation by 2006 is way behind schedule? The problem with minicab drivers is enormous. Attending a dinner in the West End last week, for example, I was propositioned six times in Park Lane—sadly, only by minicab drivers. Every one of those drivers was committing an offence. Bearing in mind that the number of reported attacks on passengers in minicabs is going up year by year, it is important that this matter is addressed. Westminster Council, for example, has applied for temporary licences.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am well aware of Westminster Council's concern. It is quite right. Illegal touting is wrong and we should not give it any encouragement. We should continue to press to ensure that the target deadline for bringing minicab drivers within the regime is met. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships' House support that. I hope that the noble Lord is not propositioned too often.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in addition to the fact that the licensing of minicabs has not been carried out, the cost of taking a taxi in London in the evening has risen? That results

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from a deliberate effort on the part of the Mayor to bring more taxi cabs into London. The adverse effect is that people who should be taking taxis at that time—such as young girls out alone—are unable to do so because the cost is prohibitive. Are the Government minded to look at this action by the Mayor of London?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as the noble Baroness well knows, that is a question not for us but for the proper authorities; namely, Transport for London and the Mayor. It is obviously of concern that access is perhaps limited by the fare structure. However, the objective of making sure that there are more taxi cabs in central London late at night is a laudable one which we all support. More than that cannot be said at this point.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the fact that this has been an ongoing question for 10 to 15 years. Is he aware that that conjures up an awful picture of some official weevil boring away for years to get this particular burden agreed by a higher authority? The noble Lord seems to think that this is a laughing matter. What justification is there for imposing an extra burden on the drivers of black cabs, one of the very few totally efficient links in our transport system?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this was no doubt an issue that vexed the noble Lord when he was the Minister for Transport. It is a serious and proper question. My taxi driver this morning expressed the belief that the charge for the checks was right and proper. He felt that the public were reaping the benefit as they could be confident and assured that a proper and full check had been carried out on drivers. As a consequence, the public rightly support, appreciate and have great sympathy for the taxi cab business.

Southern Africa: Famine

11.15 a.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What they are doing to help alleviate the effects of famine in southern Africa this year.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, before I answer the Question, perhaps the House will allow me 10 seconds' indulgence, as this is the first opportunity that I have had from this Dispatch Box to pay tribute to my very good and close friend, my noble friend Lord Carter. He has been an outstanding Chief Whip. I owe him an enormous amount—I speak on behalf of the Whips' Office. He has taught me no end of the arts, not just in the past year but previously. Any errors that I shall undoubtedly make will be due to my inadequacy as my noble friend's pupil rather than to his inadequacy as a teacher. If I may be totally unparliamentary: Denis, you are a tough act to follow; you really are!

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On the famine in southern Africa, we have been monitoring the deteriorating prospects for food supplies in southern Africa since September 2001. Six countries in the region will need exceptional support for food imports and for distribution to the poorest people up to April next year. We have so far provided £13 million for feeding programmes being delivered by non-governmental organisations, and will do more. A co-ordinating meeting of southern African countries and donors will be held in Johannesburg on 6th and 7th June. It is essential that the meeting comes up with realistic plans for early action.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we on these Benches support what the noble Lord the Chief Whip has said about the noble Lord, Lord Carter. If I may speak on behalf of the Opposition Whips' Office, we have always found the noble Lord as helpful as he could be in arriving at sensible decisions on the business of this House. We wish him all the very best for the future.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on his promotion and I look forward very much to working constructively with him in future.

Turning to the Question, is the Minister aware of the stark warnings of the UN and the World Food Programme that at least 10 million southern Africans are on the brink of starvation? Does he accept that averting a humanitarian disaster requires an international response? I urge the Government to give this, and Mugabe's continuing violence and repression in Zimbabwe, a high priority at the G8 meeting in Canada next month.

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