New taxi licensing laws are expected to close the "cross-border" gap. Matt Lewin and Tara O’Leary look at the plans.
The government has announced plans to introduce new legislation which will give licensing authorities greater powers to enforce standards against "out of town" vehicles and drivers operating in their areas – but only "when time allows".
The headline reforms are:
- National minimum standards to ensure greater consistency between licensing authorities.
- Enforcement powers against any vehicle or driver operating in a licensing authority's area – regardless of where they are licensed.
- A national database, established by law, containing details of all licensed vehicles, drivers and operators.
The problems caused by "cross-border" hiring of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles ("PHVs") has attracted increasing attention in the last few years, primarily due to the emergence of Uber as a major player in the taxi market.
The urgent need for legislation to address those problems has been brought into sharp focus by the child sexual exploitation scandals in Rotherham and elsewhere in the country – in which taxis played a significant role facilitating serious criminal offences. Licensing authorities who have sought to raise standards for the protection of the public have seen their efforts undermined by an influx of out of town vehicles which are not required to comply with those standards and are immune from enforcement action by local licensing officers.
Accordingly, cross border hiring was one of the major themes of Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq's Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Licensing report, published in September. The government published its response to that report and confirmed that they would introduce legislation to implement a number of his recommendations – but only "when time allows".
One controversial recommendation (TFG 11) which has been given the government's backing is a proposal that all PHV journeys should begin or end in the area in which the driver, vehicle and operator are licensed. That would represent a significant restriction on the freedom of cross-border hiring and could have the potential to favour larger operators who are better placed to accumulate multiple operator's licences.
The government has said more work on the "detail" is required – in particular, what "size of area is appropriate", suggesting that local authority boundaries may not be used as the benchmark.
Also today, the government has published draft statutory guidance for licensing authorities which will be consulted on until 22 April 2019.
The guidance seeks primarily to "address the safeguarding of the public and the potential impact of failings in this area" (para 2.6). The draft includes:
- A single "fit and proper" test (para 2.14)
- The applicant/licence holder should not be given the benefit of the doubt when making decisions about their suitability (para 2.16)
- A self-reporting requirement where the licence holder is arrested, charged or convicted of any motoring, dishonesty, indecent or violent offence – triggering an automatic review of their suitability to hold a licence (para 2.41)
- Duty to refer applicants/licence holders to the DBS where they have been refused a licence, or had their licence revoked, due to safeguarding concerns (para 2.44)
- Mandatory safeguarding awareness training (para 2.72)
- Support for in-vehicle CCTV (para 2.104) – but caution about making it a mandatory condition in all cases (para 2.109)
- Guidance on length of time following conviction for offences before a new licence can be granted (Annex A)
Meanwhile, in Wales
In parallel to the (Westminster) government's announcement, the Welsh Government is also carrying out its own consultation on changes to taxi and PHV licensing in that jurisdiction. In December 2018 it published Improving Public Transport: A Welsh Government White Paper on proposals to legislate for reforming the planning and delivery of local bus services and licensing of taxis and private hire vehicles. Views on the White Paper must be submitted by 27 March 2019.
The Welsh Government previously conducted an initial consultation on Taxi and private hire licensing in Wales, launched in June 2017. The Outcome Report of January 2018 showed, as in England, strong support for the introduction of national minimum standards and the improvement of "cross border" enforcement powers. Intriguingly, this consultation had originally proposed the removal of the "two tier" distinction between taxis and PHVs. However the consultation revealed limited support for this option, and it appears this proposal has now been dropped.
There are now four key proposals. Most radically, the White Paper suggests that taxi and PHV licensing powers could be removed from local authorities and redirected into a centralised "Joint Transport Agency". The Agency would assume responsibility for all existing taxi/PHV functions including setting national standards, licensing, fee- and fare-setting, enforcement and prosecutions, hearing appeals from licensing decisions and possibly capping taxi numbers.
The other three proposals mirror those of the English reforms: (a) national minimum standards, (b) enforcement powers for "cross border" cases; and (c) a national database or other mechanism to improve information-sharing amongst licensing authorities.
It was in 1948 that the Lord Chief Justice complained that "these numerous statutes are obsolete, many are obscure ... and others ... are out of date. It would seem that an Act consolidating and amending, and if possible, simplifying the law with regard to cabs, is very desirable." There are few who would disagree with that sentiment.
More than 70 years later, it seems that we might soon see a real attempt to bring taxi licensing regulation into the 21st century.