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.