Belfast private hire drivers have claimed government officials have used excuses such as rushing to the birth of a child, being drunk and even that they have an appointment at the cancer centre, to see if they can get a taxi outside of the rules.
The Department for Infrastructure, however, said it was “very unlikely” the undercover enforcement officers used such tactics and that they do not set out to appear vulnerable as part of their work.
The Belfast Telegraph reports that under taxi regulations Class A licensed taxis - that is, those that are the private hire saloon cars - can only pick up passengers off the street at restricted times over the weekend, otherwise a booking is needed. Black hackney cabs, which have a B licence, can ply for trade off the street throughout the week.
One man, speaking on the BBC Stephen Nolan show, said he offered a drunk man a taxi, but as it was against regulations to allow him into his taxi, he called a friend who was sitting down the road to come and collect him, resulting in the two drivers getting hefty fines.
Various drivers called the show alleging other tactics had been used in the operations. Among the claims were that an agent said he was rushing to hospital for the birth of his first child, while another said they had an appointment at the Belfast Cancer Centre.
The taxi driver who offered the lift to the drunk man said he felt he was acting in the “public interest” to help a “vulnerable man” and was shocked to realise it was a sting operation.
Gerry Maxwell of Belfast Public Hire Taxis, which represents the black hackney cab drivers, told the Belfast Telegraph: “You have to feel for the enforcement agents because they cannot come on to the radio to give their side of the story. No one is above the law.
“They are looking to see you have the right licence, are using your meter so you are not ripping people off and giving receipts, that type of thing. Safety is paramount, we pay for it so I am glad to see it.”
Gerry, who has carried the undercover passengers himself and never found to be acting wrongly, said there was a need for more officers. “It’s the only way to catch them,” he said. “I can’t commend them enough for the job they do - it’s our part of the industry that’s affected. If it goes on and these drivers who have not got the right licence are allowed to continue, then we will be out of business.”
A Department for Infrastructure spokesman said staff did not seek to appear vulnerable, adding: “The DVA has been responding to an increase in complaints from licensed taxi drivers that their livelihood is being undermined by taxi drivers operating illegally. The DVA’s role is to ensure vehicles are roadworthy and safe, and drivers have the appropriate licence.
“At no time will DVA enforcement officers seek to appear vulnerable. They will use surveillance, for which provision is made in legislation, to prevent or detect crime associated with the use of illegal taxis. The focus of the surveillance is to target locations where illegal taxi operations are more likely and have been either detected or reported previously.”