12 Nov 2010

Transport Ministers Speech to the NTA Conference 2010

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Transport Minister Norman Baker MP.

Norman Baker MP

Hello. I am sorry I cannot be with you at your conference today but I have asked officials to deal with any questions that arise from your deliberations so please do collate them and send them on to us. Even though I cannot be here in person I wanted to take the opportunity to present to you by modern technology to send you this message and indeed to fulfil my brief as minister for alternatives to travel.

Like many people I am a regular user of taxis. They make life so convenient when, for example, you arrive in a town or city you do not know very well. So, as I said to the licensing officers association last week, I can speak to you from a passengers perspective as well as that of a Minister. The coalition government is committed to localism because the best form of government is one that lets people govern themselves.

If decision making devolved and power dispensed problems are more easily defind and better solutions can be found. Better taxi services can never be delivered through a one size fits all approach. Every local community is different. So if they are to be efficient and profitable then taxi services must obviously meet the specific needs of specific local communities. So what I really want to see is local regulation that allows you to flourish. You know best what passengers want and you need to provide a service that meets passengers demands.

I recognise that you want to be able to do this in a cost effective way against the background of a harsh economic climate. It was with your cost burdens in mind that I reminded the licensing authorities last week about the importance of insuring that their local policies and rules are proportionate.

I reminded them of our Best Practice Guidance whose principal objective is to ensure that any rules and regulations imposed on the trade are commensurate with the objectives that they intended to achieve. So please make sure that you are familiar with the Best Practice Guidance and don’t be afraid to use it to challenge your licensing authority to justify their local policies.

Now speaking to you as a taxi passenger, it is clear that you have a key responsibility for providing visitors and tourists with their first impressions of a new town or city. It is most unfortunate and reflects badly on your trade as a whole I am afraid when a driver cannot communicate and does not know where he is going. As some of you may know from media reports this happened to me recently in Liverpool. The driver could not understand my directions or find the 34 storey building that I wanted to be dropped off at even after I had given him the postcode and a map.

I am assuming that this is an isolated incident and I was simply unlucky. I know the overwhelming majority of you take your responsibility as ambassadors of your local area seriously and make the effort to ensure that visitors first impressions are positive ones. Passengers expect drivers to be able to communicate. They expect drivers to know where they are going and they expect to be safe during the journey. So the points that I would make from mentioning this anecdote to you is that it is in your interests for your licensing authority to undertake a rigorous assessment of taxi driver licence applicants. It gives passengers the confidence they need to use taxis.

Let me turn now to perhaps the most topical issue of the day for you – The Equality Act 2010. We published in September a guidance note dedicated to the trade about the taxi elements of the Act that came into force on 01st October. It is on the Department’s website in case you have not seen it. One element of the Act which will be of interest to you is the new approach to imposing duties on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to assist passengers in wheelchairs. It was clear from consultation responses received by the Department last year that disabled people wanted to see driver duties implemented as soon as possible.

The Equality Act introduces a new concept of designated vehicles, the consequence of a vehicle being on the list of designated vehicles is that the driver must undertake the duties to assist. The fact that the legislation gives licensing authorities a power to keep a list of designated vehicles means that licensing authorities are free to make the decision as to whether they do or don’t maintain such a list.

I took the opportunity last week to urge all licensing authorities to keep a list of designated vehicles. After all, the end product will be a better service for disabled people. Now we recognise that some drivers will, because of their own condition or medical fitness, be unable to comply with the duties to assist passengers in wheelchairs. That is why the Act allows drivers to apply to their local authority for an exemption from these duties. That is what came into force on 01st October. We are still considering the commencement date for the actual duties and I will make an announcement when the plan is clear.

Whilst on the subject of assisting people who use wheelchairs I make the point that the drivers should only start the taxi meter once a passenger is safely aboard. Drivers who start their taxi meter beforehand are effectively penalising disabled people in an unacceptable way. I hope that we would all want to treat disabled people in a sensitive and sympathetic manner.

Another part of the Equality Act which I know is of particular interest to you is a provision regarding the control of taxi numbers. In those areas with quantity controls on taxis and very few wheelchair accessible taxis, it seems wrong that people who want to enter the taxi trade with wheelchair accessible taxi should be denied the opportunity to do so simply because of the local authority’s limit on taxi numbers.

The Equality Act targets areas which have a quantity control policy and only a small proportion of wheelchair accessible taxis. It says that a licensing authority will not be able to refuse to grant a licence for a wheelchair accessible vehicle for the purpose of controlling taxi numbers until a certain proportion of taxis locally is wheelchair accessible. I can assure you that we will consult before deciding what the actual proportion will be. We have to make special provision in legislation identifying the proportion and we shall take account of your views on what it should be but I think the principle is a right one. The door to door nature of taxi travel is ideally suited to people who use wheelchairs and I think this is a good way to improve provision of wheelchair accessible taxis.

Before I leave this issue just let me reassure you that nothing in this new provision about taxi numbers will require taxi owners to get new vehicles. If you are in an area with quantity controls and you have a saloon car this will not force you to buy a new one. Rather it is all about giving opportunity to people who want to enter the taxi market with a wheelchair accessible taxi and simply cannot get a licence. I shall make an announcement in due course about our plans and timescale for bringing this section into force.

Now I alluded earlier to the harsh economic climate in which you are working. Against that background perhaps I could take the opportunity to draw your attention to the flexible ways that you could offer your services. By doing so you could reap greater benefits for yourselves as well as providing a more flexible service for your passengers. I am thinking particularly of taxi sharing schemes and taxi buses.

Taxi sharing schemes has a potential to benefit both the trade and the travelling public. They can be set up in any area. A licensing authority can choose to establish taxi sharing schemes if it wants to do so but importantly it must set up a scheme if the holders is of at least 10% of taxi licences in the area request it should do so. Under a taxi sharing scheme passengers travelling in the same direction each pay their own fare which is less than the metered fare and the driver could take more than the amount which he would take for the same journey on a conventional exclusive hiring.

There is also the option of providing a taxi bus service. Taxi buses provide a flexible alternative to conventional taxis particularly in rural areas where the demand for a bus service might be light and might not justify the provision of a larger bus. It involves getting a special public service vehicle operator’s licence from the traffic commissioner and registering a route with the traffic commissioner.

These provisions provide you with a more flexible way of using your taxis particularly those of you who use seven or eight seater vehicles. In this regard you might be interested to know that I also expressed my concerns to licensing authorities about local policies which require taxi owners with seven or eight seater vehicles to remove one or two of the seats. There is really no justification for this. All it does is to restrict your ability to provide the sort of service which you have identified and which you want to provide so have a think about whether these initiatives would suit your area.

There is information about them on the Department’s website. Once again, I am sorry I can’t be with you today in person but I recognise the viable role which you play in overall transport provision and I wish you a constructive and successful conference.

Thank you.