In June 2016, Transport for London (TfL) made a number of regulatory changes to raise standards in London’s private hire industry and improve safety and convenience for customers.
This included the introduction of a requirement for London private hire vehicle (PHV) operators to make someone available for passengers to speak to during their hours of business and at all times during a journey if passengers want to make a complaint or discuss other matters relating to their booking (the Voice Contact Requirement).
Following a legal challenge, the Court of Appeal, in a judgment given today, have reversed the High Court’s decision and found the Voice Contact Requirement to be lawful thereby upholding TfL’s original decision to introduce it.
As a result of the judgment, the Voice Contact Requirement remains in place. However, in order to allow operators time to implement any necessary changes following the judgment, they should make sure they comply fully by no later than 1 October 2018. TfL encourages operators to comply fully with the Voice Contact Requirement sooner if possible.
Guidance and information on how to comply will be published on our website in due course. If you need further information, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Licensing Team on tel. 0343 222 4444 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm).
The very professional and rather slick website for Direct Taxis of Nuneaton states that they specialise in the usual list of local services, plus long-distance travel. Little did they know how long distance this particular booking would be!
As all PHTM football fans will know, the Champions League Final will have taken place in Kiev by the time you read this article. However, what you may not know is the horrendous travel difficulties Liverpool fans had been having, the number of flights that were cancelled, and the extortionate prices they had to pay if they did get a flight, in order to attend the Champions League final match between Liverpool and Real Madrid.
Direct Taxis Nuneaton to the rescue! Six Liverpool fans contacted the company and booked one of their private hire vehicles to take them to Kiev in the Ukraine for the match on Saturday, 26 May. (Sorry we don’t have the result for you in time for this edition!) They had been quoted ridiculous prices for the flights – that’s not including the hotel accommodation for the duration of their stay – of £1400 each, a total of £8,400.
Instead, proprietor Alan Lawson took the six fans in his silver minibus, pictured, for £2,200 all-in. Alan told us he’d seen the Facebook page where Liverpool fans had posted about their difficulties getting flights, and the rip-off prices of both flights and hotel bookings. What a saving! – and what a fare for Direct Taxis (Alan did the journey himself – boss’s privilege).
As we were putting together this article we spoke to Alan as he was driving, and they were approaching the border of Poland and the Ukraine and had another 90 or so miles to travel that day to get to Kiev.
Instead of staying in the original hotel, they all went camping – including Alan – for the couple of nights surrounding the match, with a 24-hour journey each way to get to Kiev and back to the UK – that’s 1,800 miles each way. They set off on Wednesday 23rd May at 11pm; following the match they left Kiev on Sunday morning 27 May and were scheduled to arrive back in the UK on Monday evening.
No doubt Alan’s six passengers had a far better travel experience than most of the Liverpool fans who flew out to Kiev! – whatever the result of the match. Direct Taxis certainly lived up to its name on this occasion.
Europe’s biggest local authority, Birmingham City Council, revealed how many of its licensed taxi drivers have criminal records after Freedom of Information requests from The Times.
Crimes committed by taxi drivers in the city include heroin and crack dealing, neglect of a child, burglary, assault, wounding, importing a prohibited weapon and several instances of drink driving and driving without insurance. Out of more than 5,000 taxi drivers operating in the city, 114 taxi have criminal records and Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood stressed it was a minority which needed to be dealt with by Birmingham City Council. He said: ‘It is important for the council to respond now this information has come to light, I am surprised they have not already taken action to deal with this.’
Taxi licensing specialist solicitor James Button said: ‘A taxi driver has enormous control over a passenger, and is capable of taking them anywhere they like for any purpose – abuse, robbery, assault or worse. ‘No other profession, trade or occupation in this country has such a degree of control over another individual. However, there seems to be a general acceptance that a level of criminality within the taxi trade is normal.’
In Birmingham and neighbouring Sandwell borough there has been a custom of elected councillors backing individual driver’s applications to increase the chances of them being approved. In 2014 in Sandwell, which includes the towns of West Bromwich, Rowley Regis, Oldbury and Tipton, the then deputy leader of the council Councillor Mahboob Hussain was censured for not declaring he had shares in a taxi firm which the authority regularly awarded contracts to. Chris Neville, Acting Director of Regulation and Enforcement at Birmingham City Council, told Metro.co.uk: ‘We take taxi licensing and public safety very seriously.
‘All applications for new Hackney Carriage or private hire drivers’ licences are subject to an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check and all licensed drivers must be DBS-checked every three years. ‘Any applicants or licence holders with convictions for dishonesty, drugs, violence or sexual offences are brought before one of the licensing sub-committees, who then determine whether they are a fit and proper person to hold a licence.
‘It is standard policy that any applicant with a conviction for a drug related or sexual offence should be refused a licence, however an applicant can ask to appear before the Licensing Sub-Committee to consider their suitability to hold a licence.’
Above a diner and accessible only via a back door off a dingy alley stands a small and unremarkable office.
To the untrained eye, it is the home of a local minicab firm, Wednesfield Cars, whose manager is adamant that his is the only business operating there.
Wolverhampton council knows better. It has licensed 13 competing taxi companies to run their operations from the very same office.
In the past three years, Wolverhampton has become the go-to local authority for thousands of drivers from all corners of England in search of a minicab licence. In 2015, it issued 852; this year, 9,388. The same period saw the number of minicab companies licensed to operate in the city climb from 12 to 100.
In total, 58 of those companies are listed as operating from one of four Wolverhampton addresses. When The Times visited, there was no trace of 52 of them.
The council has not merely licensed dozens of hard-to-spot firms at those locations. It has also issued licences to thousands of drivers who work in other English towns for companies with exactly the same business names as the Wolverhampton operators. Those firms run visible minicab operations in places including Birmingham, Manchester, Stockport, Stoke-on-Trent, Derby, Mansfield, Nottingham, Cambridge, Windsor & Maidenhead and Swale, in Kent.
One of the four addresses has for the past few years been the operations hub for a genuine local company called ABC Cars and its sister ABC Countdown Cars. According to the council, an additional 17 minicab firms operate at the same place. Not so, says Richard Halsall, ABC’s manager, who said he had never heard of any of them.
Licensing experts have suggested an explanation. Under the Deregulation Act 2015, minicab companies operating anywhere are entitled to subcontract work to other firms, with one proviso.
If a minicab firm in Manchester wants to use drivers and vehicles licensed by Wolverhampton, the pre-booked work they are given must be sub-contracted to the firm by a Wolverhampton minicab operator. So it would be convenient for the Manchester firm to be able to show that all the jobs it gives its Wolverhampton drivers were sub-contracted by its sister firm, of the same name, in the West Midlands city.
If that sister operator has no employees and runs no vehicles, the law does not seem to care. This loophole has been embraced by Wolverhampton council, whose “efficient” approach to licensing has proved highly lucrative. Its income from taxi and minicab licences rose from £263,000 in 2014-15 to £2.2 million in 2017-18.
Last night the council defended its conduct, insisting that it applied stringent standards to drivers it licenses and claiming that its popularity was due to swift and efficient online applications.
The authority’s licensing committee chairman, Alan Bolshaw, said its approach complied with relevant legislation and, by embracing digitalisation, was far more advanced that the “very traditional and rigid licensing practices” used by other local authorities.
To suggest that a minicab operator needed to have employees, drivers and vehicles in the area where it was based was a concept that belonged, he said, to the days of “long-winded and outdated processes”.
The 52 minicab operators that did not appear to exist at the four addresses were entirely legitimate. Each was, he said, represented at its registered operating base by a digital recording system, in the form of a box. “Why are there so many vehicles and drivers on the roads licensed by Wolverhampton council? Because we have the best licensing system in the UK,” he boasted.
Other councils would beg to disagree, particularly those hit by a recent influx of Wolverhampton-licensed minicab drivers and cars. Many, as was the case with the earlier surge in Rossendale-plated vehicles, have voiced safeguarding concerns.
Licensing officers in Southampton were contacted by Hampshire police investigating the alleged rape of a female passenger by a local driver. The council did not have him on its books and it turned out that he had been licensed by Wolverhampton.
In Rotherham, the town hit by a mass sex-grooming scandal in which minicab drivers were implicated, more than a dozen men, including five refused licences by the council for reasons including safeguarding concerns, have applied for Wolverhampton licences.
Birmingham councillors claim that Wolverhampton is “more lenient” than its neighbours. A Coventry licensing committee member complained that “treating taxi licensing as a cash cow undermines public safety”. The West Midlands authority was handing out minicab licences “like sweeties”.
Nottingham’s chief licensing officer, Richard Antcliff, accused Wolverhampton of exploiting a “farcical loophole” in the regulations. “Somewhere along the line, Wolverhampton has lost its moral compass,” he said.
The driver arrested in Southampton had no convictions and lost his licence immediately, Mr Bolshaw said. Wolverhampton had “worked extensively” with Rotherham council and the National Crime Agency “to ensure any drivers implicated in child exploitation do not gain Wolverhampton licences”.
Councils have been accused of putting public safety at risk by handing out thousands of licences to taxi drivers from across the country while in some cases failing to monitor criminal records.
One local authority licensed almost 4,000 drivers despite having only 13 taxi ranks. It then seemingly lost track of their criminal records and failed to admit its errors.
Another issued 9,000 licences to drivers employed by minicab firms across England and allowed each firm to set up a local “operating base” even though they had no employees and no vehicles in its area.
Serious failings at Rossendale, in Lancashire, and a legal loophole exploited by Wolverhampton emerged during an investigation by The Times that found many councils issued licences to drivers despite knowing that they had past convictions for sex offences, including rape.
More than 330 alleged sex assaults by taxi or minicab drivers were reported to police in 2016-17. In the past decade 131 drivers have been found guilty of sex offences against passengers. Among them were more than 40 men convicted of rape, including the “black cab rapist” John Worboys.
One small local authority in Nottinghamshire issued hundreds of taxi licences to men living outside its area, one of whom later carried out a sex attack on a young female passenger. Taxi drivers were also heavily implicated in the child sexual exploitation scandals of Rotherham and Rochdale.
In recent years a handful of English local authorities have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees from taxi and minicab licences issued to men with no intention of working in their region. They include Rossendale, whose taxi ranks have space for 75 vehicles but which licensed more than 3,700 taxi drivers last year, and Wolverhampton, where dozens of minicab firms across Britain have been licensed as local operators despite having no employees or vehicles in the city. Sales of minicab driver licences by Wolverhampton council rose from 852 in 2015 to more than 9,000 this year.
The vast majority of drivers licensed by both authorities live and work elsewhere. Councils with hundreds of “cross-border” drivers working in their area blame lax national regulations for creating a licensing free-for-all that undermines local safeguarding measures. The Times understands that in Rotherham, where 47 taxi drivers were stripped of their licences after its sex-grooming scandal, men who were judged unfit to hold a licence continued to work in the town after being approved by another local authority.
Police revealed last week that 60 minicab drivers suspected of child sexual exploitation in Newcastle upon Tyne have had their licences suspended. Almost half are thought to have been licensed by different councils.
Licensing officers in Rochdale said three years ago that efforts to tackle sexual exploitation and improve “driver probity” were undermined by the “numerous drivers” working under licences issued by neighbouring Rossendale, where a “lower standard” was applied. Drivers with Rossendale licences have been convicted of offences in York, Milton Keynes and Manchester. In 2016 its licences were used by more than 400 taxi drivers working in Sheffield, 250 in Derby and 200 in Bradford.
This newspaper has been told that for at least six months until the summer of 2016, Rossendale renewed scores of taxi licences without knowing drivers’ up-to-date criminal records. After concerns were raised internally by a whistleblower, the council’s licensing manager was suspended and swiftly left the authority. A “change of policy” was urgently introduced under which staff were told that no licences were to be renewed unless the applicant presented an enhanced DBS (disclosure and barring service) certificate issued no more than a month earlier.
Last night there were calls for an independent inquiry into the whistleblower’s allegations. The council said that the claims had been fully investigated and were unfounded. It said it was confident that it had not issued any taxi licences “to anyone who should not have received one”. Since 2016 Rossendale has introduced measures to reduce the number of licences it issues.
Wolverhampton council said last night that it operated a “robust and rigorous” vetting procedure. Its approach embraced digital technology, “consumer-driven demand” and offered “the best taxi licensing system in the UK”.
The Suzie Lamplugh Trust, which this year published a report detailing multiple examples of local authorities licensing men with criminal convictions for offences of violence including battery and assault, said that the licensing regulations were not fit for purpose.