For a long time now, I have been campaigning for big changes in the licensing arrangements for taxis and private hire vehicles and their drivers.
This was in the opposition of many Conservative MPs who, as part of their ideological obsession with cutting regulation (buses, banking, health and safety, workers’ rights and more), had been pressing the government to reduce what they called ‘the regulatory burden’. In fact, the Conservative/LibDem Coalition government had already removed some of the licensing powers of local councils and were proposing further cuts in powers as well as resources.
Then, of course, new technological initiatives (like UBER) demonstrated that the law relating to taxi licensing – much of it from the 19th century when the taxis were horse-drawn hackney cabs – was completely inadequate to address the challenges of the 21st century. The deregulatory pressure was increasing.
However, the importance of this issue really reached the public consciousness in the shocking revelations about the roles of some – of course, a minority – taxi and private hire drivers in child sexual abuse in Rotherham and, subsequently revealed, in other parts of the country. Suddenly, thank goodness, the government started back-tracking and some, previously voluble, MPs went silent.
There have been some changes in the licensing law, but nowhere near enough.
I have previously pointed to the existence of private hire vehicles and drivers, with licences being issued in Lancashire and Lincolnshire (and elsewhere), operating in Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Why? Because some drivers have found that the existing law is being operated in a relaxed way in those areas. Bluntly, they’re getting a licence there when they would be turned down for a licence in Rotherham or Sheffield. That simply isn’t acceptable.
I have been backing a campaign with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to update the law. A recent report by the Trust revealed that taxi and private hire vehicle licences are being granted to drivers with criminal convictions that include violent offences. Passenger safety is being compromised because there are no national minimum standards to enforce sufficient safety checks for taxi and private hire vehicle licensing.
Of course the majority of drivers do not pose a personal safety risk to passengers, but they, and we, are being let down by a minority who are slipping through the net. Although taxi and private hire drivers hold a position of trust, transporting passengers who are often alone and in a locked vehicle, the highest level of criminal checks is not required in law, only recommended in guidelines. Passengers are at risk.
Research into safety checks for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers highlighted:
- only 46 out of 316 local authorities are able to provide detailed information about drivers’ criminal histories on request;
- a significant number of licensed taxi and private hire vehicle drivers highlighted in the research have criminal records including convictions for actual bodily harm, common assault, speeding and drink driving;
- current taxi and private hire vehicle drivers have successfully applied for or renewed their licence despite having committed crimes in the last 6 years. Their convictions included battery, assault occasioning actual bodily harm as well as speeding;
- at least 865 drivers in just 38 licensing authorities have successfully applied for or renewed their licence despite their criminal convictions; and
- some licensed taxi and private hire vehicle drivers have multiple convictions. One currently licensed driver has over 36 separate convictions dating from 1973 to 2017, with offences including actual bodily harm, taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent and threatening behaviour.
So, as well as backing the Trust’s campaign, I have also been supporting a Private Members Bill in Parliament, promoted by my colleague Daniel Zeichner to close some of the loopholes. The Bill isn’t perfect and it can’t be comprehensive but we can’t wait any longer for the government to act.
We need a strong national licensing framework, with committed local implementation. All our health and safety depends on it.