Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

The streets of the west end of London, in particular Soho and Covent Garden, have become a dangerous free-for-all. I worry that it is a matter of when, rather than if, a serious accident perhaps even a fatality, occurs involving one of the unlicensed rickshaws or pedicabs that have proliferated so strikingly on London’s thoroughfares. That situation is not acceptable in a 21st-century global marketplace such as London.

Two facts clearly illustrate the situation with regard to unmotorised cycles for hire, pedicabs, in London. First, the pedicab industry still operates without almost any enforceable external controls over licensing, registration or traffic management. Secondly, pedicab numbers are rising very quickly indeed. The latest estimates are that within the city of Westminster alone, their numbers have risen by some 50 per cent. in the past six months.

The issue is not confined to the west end of London, and I appreciate that there are an increasing number of pedicabs in places such as Brighton. Within London, the issue is not confined to my constituency, and I suspect that my neighbours in Regent’s Park and Kensington, North and in Holborn and St. Pancras have similar concerns, albeit on a different scale from mine. Tonight, it is estimated that some 500 pedicabs will be out on the streets of Westminster touting for business. Naturally, the situation will become ever more acute as spring turns into summer.

It is important to realise that many people and groups are completely opposed to pedicabs operating on our streets in any form, I shall represent their views, although I do not agree with them entirely, because I believe that pedicabs make for some of the colour of the life that we live in London, and that other people want pedicabs licensed as quickly as possible. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, for example, which represents about 7,000 drivers in the capital, has always been strongly opposed to pedicabs. The association claims that its opposition does not stem from a fear of competition, because pedicab rides are typically very short journeys that would otherwise be taken on foot or by bus rather than by cab. Rather, its concern stems from pedicab riders’ daily infringement of traffic and parking regulations, and from seeing the real danger that pedicab passengers and riders face.

Even with a licensing regime, the LTDA claims that there is an urgent necessity, recognised by all parties including the Government, for parking and traffic regulations to be applied to pedicabs, as they are to other licensed vehicles. The provisions to achieve that purpose were included in the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill, but the Government blocked them in Committee in November 2005. The LTDA has since repeatedly urged the Government to bring forward the necessary legislation as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the London Pedicab Operators Association has brought some 200 riders into its organisation, which although a welcome development, still represents a minority of operators. The LPOA encourages higher safety standards for pedicabs, but the pedicabs that passengers climb into tonight are likely to be dangerously unsafe in several ways. First, without background checks, it is perfectly feasible for criminals to operate pedicabs, which is entirely unacceptable in the operation of black cabs, for example. At least one rape has been committed by a pedicab operator, and further anecdotal evidence suggests that riders include illegal immigrants, foreign students, who ignore the terms under which they are allowed into the country by working longer hours than authorised, and others who under any sensible licensing regime would be considered unsuitable for such work and daily contact with the public. We do not tolerate such risks for licensed cab drivers or bus drivers, and we should not tolerate it for this new mode of transport.

Although the taxi drivers do not agree with me, I think that the pedicabs are here to stay. In a way, it is a mode of transport that looks to the past: all who have travelled to India and China will have seen rickshaws and pedicabs. There is a certain convenience that comes with a pedicab, and it adds to the colour and gaiety of city life here in London. They are here to stay, and we must consider the manner of their regulation. The Minister and I have discussed the issue privately, and she knows that I am instinctively wary of ever more legislation and regulation. Quite rightly, the Department believes that registration should be a last resort, but I suspect that the proliferation of pedicabs means that on road and personal safety grounds, we must give the issue much more urgent consideration.

Secondly, the pedicab does not have any safety requirements whatever, presenting a major risk to passengers and other road users. Again, such a situation simply would not be tolerated for any other mode of transport. Thirdly, without adequate powers to enforce traffic regulations, pedicabs are able to flout parking and wider traffic rules. Tonight, if one were to go from Regent street, where the pedicabs parked outside Hamleys block the bus lane, to Cambridge circus or to any west end theatre, one would see that we must urgently enforce traffic regulations on the grounds of safety and because of the duty of local authorities to manage the transport network properly.

In an operation lasting just six months in the Charing Cross area, Westminster city council’s community protection team warned 124 pedicab operators for obstruction of the highway. Nine operators were subsequently arrested, and of those, seven were successfully prosecuted for wilful obstruction. The other two failed to appear in court. The highest fine paid so far has been a rather derisory £75 with £35 costs. The London Pedicab Operators Association claims to have an insurance policy that costs £275 per pedicab per annum, but I do not know whether it covers serious injury to drivers, passengers, or indeed pedestrians who are caught up in any accidents.

The Charing Cross initiative was a small-scale operation over a limited period, and because of the current dearth of legislation, it did not cover the full range of traffic offences that affect my constituency day and night. Due to the complete absence of a registration regime, it is impossible to verify how many offences pedicab riders have committed. That represents a truly dangerous gap in our knowledge. The anecdotal evidence that I have heard from people who spend their evenings in theatreland, or who are local residents of Soho or Covent Garden, suggests that the study has revealed only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the difficulties in London is the proliferation of organisations with a certain amount of responsibility, including local authorities?in this case Westminster city council and the London borough of Camden?and, to an extent, Transport for London, under the auspices of the Mayor of London. TFL has been working with the industry to develop a registration scheme, which I greatly support, and recognises the urgency with which it needs to conclude that process. That course of action has the support of the Metropolitan police, Westminster city council and the responsible pedicab operators.

I hope that the Government will use their influence to ensure that any licensing regime requires operators to undergo a full check before being allowed to work, just as with any other operator of public transport, and ensures that riders have a good working knowledge of the area in which they operate and that they are physically fit. Any regime should also ensure that vehicles are fit for purpose and not in imminent danger of toppling over, which is the case with so many older pedicabs, that fares are standardised and that operators face the same penalties as other road users in the event of their contravening traffic regulations. However, if we are genuinely serious about protecting road users and pedestrians, we urgently need to give local authorities statutory powers to enforce traffic and parking rules against contraventions by pedicabs, in accordance with any licensing regime. It has become abundantly clear over recent months that the only truly feasible way of achieving that would be to introduce primary legislation.

Westminster city council’s parking attendants have no means by which to issue penalty charge notices to pedicabs, despite the fact that any recent visitor to the west end cannot have failed to notice the pedicabs blocking roads, junctions and bus lanes, undermining emergency access to streets and pavements as a result, and generally making an already challenging transport network that much more difficult for pedestrians and other road users. I am sure that the Minister would be happy to come to the west end?unlike the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who was perhaps not terribly inclined to go down to the west country?and see for herself what Westminster city council is doing on the ground to ensure that the unlicensed hazard of pedicabs is kept to an absolute minimum.

I hope the Minister will do two things in responding to this debate, both of which would make a huge difference to residents, businesses, visitors and, importantly, tourists, who will be flooding into central London in the weeks and months ahead as summer arrives. I should like her to undertake that she will do everything that she can to ensure that a licensing regime is introduced for pedicabs as soon as possible. I should also like her to impress upon TFL the importance of its current work to introduce a licensing regime and to include the detail that passengers and other road users are currently subject to far too many risks every night.

Furthermore, I would be grateful if the Minister were to undertake that the Government will introduce primary legislation that will allow local authorities to use their traffic enforcement powers against pedicabs, just as they do against other vehicles. The Department for Transport has previously assured us that primary legislation already exists to bring pedicabs into line with other vehicles in law. However, the search for that legislation has proved fruitless and local authorities’ hands have remained tied.

In the past, the Department for Transport has suggested that once the licensing regime was in place, local authorities could issue traffic management orders to enforce the rules on pedicabs. That is not really a workable solution, because a TMO to ban pedicabs from using the pavement, for example, would mean Westminster city council being obliged to erect large signs all over the city of Westminster, as it is required to do when enforcing such a TMO. That would lead to a bureaucratic nightmare and would not be a solution to the problem of pedicabs, given the relatively small locality in which it exists.

It would not be overstating the case to say that we are not far off experiencing our first fatality involving pedicabs. I hope that the Department for Transport will bear that in mind as it prepares any new legislation. With the Olympics approaching, we cannot allow this dangerous situation to continue. We cannot seek to manage London’s transport network with so little knowledge about the vehicles on our roads, not least because of the problems with gridlock.

Let me summarise the situation as it is. Westminster city council wants to improve the experience of going out in the west end. That is understandable and in all our interests, given the importance of tourism as a major driver of imports and central London’s role in that regard, which cannot be overstated. Safe transport is a major part of that offer. London’s increasing numbers of unlicensed pedicabs represent a threat to the safety of passengers and the reputation of London. It is extremely difficult for traffic authorities in London to enforce parking and moving vehicle traffic rules against contraventions by pedicabs, given the current lack of any registration and licensing regime, and the absence of powers to allow highways authorities to issue fines to drivers.

TFL intends to introduce a full licensing regime for pedicabs following its consultation process, and I welcome that co-operation going forward. However, new legislative provisions are needed to allow the current enforcement regimes for parking and moving traffic contraventions to include pedicabs, too. Those provisions will be required to enable the proper regulation of pedicabs as they conduct their business, and to ensure that they are subject to the same safety regulations that apply to other road users.

Amendments were tabled to the Road Safety Act 2006 during its passage in the previous Session, and supported my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott). They were resisted by the Department for Transport, on the grounds that alternative legislative routes might be available. Similar objections were made to my amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill. However, I hope that the Minister will find the opportunity in the very near future to improve the safety of pedicabs, and therefore to enhance and protect the reputation of the west end as a showcase for London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate on an issue of concern to many people who are interested in transport safety, and in the very essence of our capital city, in which we have much pride, and its development.

Let me begin by saying that the Government believe that pedicabs have a role to play in transport provision, provided that they are properly regulated and managed. In that respect, I was glad to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and the hon. Gentleman, as well as interested parties, to discuss how we can sensibly accept that point and move forward. A number of people, including the hon. Gentleman and me, welcome pedicabs as an addition to the diversity of city life, particularly in our tourist areas, but I also know only too well that not everybody takes that view. For example, as the hon. Gentleman said, many taxi drivers would prefer pedicabs to be banned from London’s streets altogether.

The issue, as I see it, has always been about how to achieve proper regulation in the public interest and how to ensure safety. The issue specific to London is that there is currently no system of pedicab regulation in the capital. A proper system of regulation in London is both necessary and desirable. On that basis, I very much welcome the steps being taken by Transport for London, as the taxi licensing authority in London, to put in place measures to bring pedicabs into its existing taxi licensing regime. That is essentially a matter for TFL to take forward.

Once achieved, licensing will provide a means of exercising comprehensive but appropriate control over pedicabs in London. That will include dealing with important questions to do with safety and standards, about which the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned. Licensing will also involve defining areas of operation, as well as the vetting, listing and identification of pedicabs, their operators and their riders, and of course the use of Criminal Records Bureau checks. Licensing will deal with the enforcement of those standards and rules, to ensure that the services offered are reliable and safe.

The hon. Gentleman referred to what he described as the Government blocking the inclusion of relevant provisions in the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill, in 2005. I assure the Chamber that that was not the case. Those provisions were removed by the Committee considering that private Bill after taking account of the views expressed to them, including those of pedicab operators and the taxi trade. Our view was that the weak registration system that the provisions proposed for pedicabs was an inadequate response to the safety and regulatory concerns about pedicabs, and that only a full, enforceable licensing system of the sort that TFL now proposes would provide the right answer.

Last year, TFL carried out a public consultation on its proposals. It set out in full how the organisation proposes to tackle all aspects of regulation. It is now for TFL to take the matter forward in light of responses to that consultation. In so doing, I am sure that it will take full account of the views of pedicab operators and others on the principle and details of its proposals.

I understand that TFL is now working on the necessary amendments to the London cab order to facilitate the licensing of pedicabs. It is seeking the right balance between regulation and control, and the particular needs and circumstances of the pedicab industry. I also understand that TFL is in the process of securing the necessary clarification from the courts. That would reverse a previous decision that prevented pedicabs from being classified as taxis for the purposes of the legislation.

Securing that clarification is one of the main reasons why the introduction of licensing has taken more time than all sides would have hoped. The matter remains before the courts, and the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot speculate on the likely outcome of the court’s deliberations, although I can say that TFL, having considered all aspects of the issue, remains confident of a successful outcome.

It is important to make early progress, but it is also important to get the detail of the new licensing arrangements right. On that basis, I welcome TFL’s proposal to initiate discussions with the representatives of the pedicab trade about the trade’s proposal for a voluntary licensing scheme, ahead of the resolution of the remaining legal issues. TFL is hopeful that a voluntary scheme, if that proves possible, could become the basis for the enforceable licensing scheme that it is trying to achieve. The Government share TFL’s hopes and ambitions in that respect.

I recognise that without a satisfactory enforcement regime, licensing will not help local authorities achieve suitable regulation in the public interest and ensure protection. The regulations to enforce the Traffic Management Act 2004 will enable enforcement action to be taken against any vehicle that contravenes local traffic regulation orders about parking, bus lanes and issues such as banned turns, pedestrian zones and one-way streets. I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view that further primary legislation is required. It is incumbent on us all not to seek extra legislation unless it is required. As soon as a robust licensing system is in place and keeper information is available, local authorities can take action against pedicabs that break those traffic management orders.

I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman. He raised the question of pedicabs parking on the pavement. Once again, I do not believe that primary legislation is the way forward. To be effective, decisions about what vehicles should have the right to park and where can only, in practice, be taken by local authorities. That is why they have been given the power to make traffic management orders. Instead of attempting to introduce unnecessary primary legislation, local authorities should use the powers that they have been given, and that they wanted, to ban the inappropriate parking of pedicabs on the pavement so that there is no illegal parking to cause difficulty for pedicab passengers and the general public.

Mr. Mark Field

Our concern about traffic management orders is that allowing one local authority to have particular rules and another to have different ones?or, indeed, none at all?often means that the problem is simply displaced. It could also lead to a very confused system among adjacent local authorities. Obviously, I am considering the London context, but the same could apply beyond the boundaries of the capital. The local authorities concerned feel that although having the discretion to make traffic management orders provides a potential opportunity, it is relatively unworkable. Relying simply on it rather than on the primary legislation route could be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Gillian Merron

Clearly, local solutions are necessary to meet local conditions, and such decisions should be made at the local level. Although I take the point about adjacent local authorities, particularly in respect of London, there is nothing to stop local authorities from co-operating on such issues; indeed, I would encourage them to do so. However, they might be the first to complain if we took away local decision making and put it elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern that a ban introduced by a traffic management order would have to be indicated by traffic signs on the street. Restrictions should be clearly signed for all concerned. One of the most frequent concerns expressed by road users is that traffic signs are not clear about what restrictions are in place, so restrictions are broken inadvertently. Information should always be widely available in the appropriate form, through traffic signs or other means, so that everybody can abide by them. We are seeking to prevent the problem, rather than cure it afterwards.

As I have stressed, our objective is to support TFL and the London boroughs so that they are in a position to ensure safety and secure the proper regulation of pedicabs in the public interest. We are preparing regulations that will enable local authorities to ensure that all vehicles, including pedicabs, comply with traffic regulations. We will continue to work closely with TFL and its partners to find a satisfactory outcome.