By Ruchi Parekh
Earlier this month, the government announced its 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. However, the government has said it will legislate "when time allows".
The government's plans are in direct response to the recommendations of the Task and Finish Group ("TFG") on Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Licensing, chaired by Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq. Professor's Abdel-Haq's report made a series of 34 specific recommendations and was published last September.
The government's 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. However, given the government's non-committal timeline, it will be some time before we see any of these proposed reforms implemented by legislation.
The urgent need for legislative reform 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 that 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 Abdel-Haq's report.
One controversial recommendation of the report (TFG 11) which has been given the government's initial 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.
In a further effort to tackle public safety concerns, the report recommended (TFG 17) that all licensed vehicles must be fitted with visual and audio CCTV as part of the national minimum standards, subject to data protection safeguards. Moreover, all drivers should be subject to enhanced DBS and barred lists checks, and drivers should be required to subscribe to the DBS update service (TFG 20). In response, the government has published draft statutory guidance on the use of CCTVs and DBS checks and update service, among other issues aimed at enhancing public safety.