As a former district councillor for Rother District Council – part of the constituency I now represent as an MP, I welcome The Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill, which would require taxi and private hire vehicle - PHV - licensing authorities in England to share information with other licensing authorities to prevent unsuitable people being licensed as a taxi or PHV driver.
Ensuring that people getting into a taxi are safe must be of upmost priority and data sharing across authorities is essential.
The Bill is in two parts:
The first would require licensing authorities in England to input into a central database instances where the authority has suspended, revoked, refused to grant or refused to renew a taxi or PHV driver’s licence because of certain safeguarding or road safety concerns relating to that driver. Other licensing authorities in England must then have regard to that information when considering whether to grant or renew a taxi or PHV driver’s licence.
The second part of the Bill would require licensing authorities in England to report certain safeguarding or road safety concerns about a taxi or PHV driver working in their area to the licensing authority in England, Wales or Scotland that granted a licence to that driver. The Bill would then require licensing authorities in England to have regard to any such reports received and to consider whether the relevant taxi or PHV driver should remain licensed.
Currently, licensing authorities are not required to share information with other licensing authorities who may need to know that information to take a decision about granting or renewing a driver’s licence and who may find such information useful when reaching the decision. Therefore, if a driver is refused a licence or has an existing licence suspended or revoked because of safety concerns, the individual can apply for a licence in another area where the licensing authority is unlikely to be aware of the previous refusal, suspension or revocation. This is very concerning.
Whilst both these parts of the Bill would make enormous improvements in passenger safety, I think the Bill could go further; we had a situation when I was a district councillor sitting on a licence panel hearing where a taxi driver had not informed the licensing authority, Rother DC, as he should have done, that he had been arrested for stealing money - tens of thousands from an elderly customer. He was later convicted.
The Police are not under a duty to inform the licensing authority - issues with data sharing, ongoing investigation, innocent until proven guilty. Revocation of a license on arrest rather than conviction is permitted on the grounds of public safety. Someone has to be a fit and proper person and the question to ask is –
“Would you allow your son or daughter, spouse or partner, mother or father, grandson or granddaughter or any other person for whom you care, to get into a vehicle with this person alone?”
There is a real risk of non-disclosure of relevant information by applicants - using the database is not mandatory.
The taxi driver had been driving driving around other vulnerable elderly people who might have been at risk from him. I do believe that data should be shared between agencies as regards taxi drivers in order to ensure the highest possible standard of safeguarding.
Hackney Carriage and Private Hire Operators, Drivers and Vehicles are principally governed by the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, Town Police Clauses Act 1847, Council Byelaws and the Rules, Regulations and Conditions set by the Licensing and General Purposes Committee.
It has to be said that the law on taxi licensing has not been updated since 1976, although there has been updating guidance issued – so the law does need modernising to be fit for modern day.
Licensing Councils, for example, my local Rother District Council, will investigate any offence or breach the rules, regulations, or conditions of a taxi licence issued.
The outcome of investigations may result in:
- No further action being taken
- Penalty points being awarded
- A formal warning
- Referral to the Licensing Sub-Committee and/or prosecution
Rother DC has an innovative Penalty Points Scheme, brought in by the excellent Andy Eaton, a licensing and litigation lawyer and Deputy Legal Services Manager for both Wealden and Rother District Councils. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Licensing for his outstanding contribution in the field of licensing.
The aim of a Penalty Point Scheme is to work in conjunction with other enforcement options. The purpose of the scheme is to record offences and to act as a record of a taxi driver’s behaviour and conduct so that the licensing authority can find whether the taxi driver applicant is a fit and proper person.
The primary objective of the Penalty Points Scheme are:
- Improve levels of compliance
- Improve the standards,
- Ensure the safety and protection of the travelling public.
Penalty points remain on record for twelve months from the date of issue. The period is on a roll forward basis, so as to allow any older points to be considered as spent and therefore excluded from the running total recorded against any individual licensee.
How does the scheme work?
Complaints from the public concerning significant breaches of conduct will be subject to investigation by Officers and may be reported to the Licensing Sub-Committee for the issue of discretionary points. Where the scheme allows the imposition of 1 to 12 points this would normally be referred to the Licensing Sub-Committee.
If a taxi driver accumulates 12 or more penalty points in any 12 month period, the matter will be referred to the Council’s Licensing Sub-Committee for the Sub-Committee to decide whether the driver is a fit and proper person.
The Licensing Sub-Committee may then suspend or revoke a licence, or issue a warning to the driver, depending upon the circumstances. Suspension periods will normally vary between 7 to 31 days.
Penalty Points will remain current for 12 months from the date the penalty points were issued.
The scheme operates without prejudice to the Council’s ability to take other action that it is entitled to take under legislation, byelaws and regulations.
I think this is an excellent scheme that other licensing authorities could use and improve safeguarding and the protection of passengers.
The DfT announced last year new standards - Statutory Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Standards - designed to improve consistency in the licensing system, reducing the risk of harm posed to children and vulnerable passengers in the process – following historic serious cases of taxi and PHV drivers abusing their position of trust.
One of the new recommendations was that drivers will have to take an enhanced DBS criminal record check every six months, as well as undertaking safeguarding training to help drivers identify and respond to passengers that may be being abused or exploited.
Among other changes, all drivers applying for a licence should now be required to disclose if they hold or have previously held a licence in another area. Local authorities will also now have to have robust reporting systems in place to make sure passengers feel comfortable reporting incidents and or suspicious behaviour.
James Button, President of the Institute of Licensing, who has long argued and lobbied for better legislation to standardise taxi licensing across all licensing authorities, said he hoped the new guidance was a prelude to more substantial new legislation for the sector. “These are not statutory requirements and they are not what most licensing professionals would regard as standards. They do not address the requirements for drivers, vehicles, or operators in any detail: rather they are a broad overview”.
Despite this, he did say that they were “a welcome addition” and should assist licensing authorities in arriving at a more standardised approach, but “they are no substitute for updated hackney carriage and private hire legislation, the need for which remains as vital now as when the Law Commission looked at this almost a decade ago. It is hoped that this guidance is a prelude to further and more substantial updating of the archaic legislation that governs hackney carriage and private hire licensing.”
Standardisation across local authorities is vital. Existing legislation allows a person who is granted a taxi or PHV driver’s licence by any licensing authority in England and Wales to take pre-booked journeys anywhere in Great Britain. Licensing authorities in England are required to carry out an assessment of whether a driver is ‘fit and proper’ or of ‘good character’.
However, licensing authorities are able to set the standards for such assessments themselves and, as a result, standards vary between licensing authorities.
Whilst licensing authorities have powers to carry out enforcement activities only against drivers to whom they have granted a licence, they have few powers to enforce against drivers who operate in their area but who are licensed elsewhere. Since there is no obligation on licensing authorities to report concerns about drivers to the licensing authority where the driver is licensed (the “home licensing authority”), such concerns are often not acted upon due to a lack of knowledge on the part of the home licensing authority.
What would the Bill do?
- The Bill would put into statute a key recommendation of the Statutory Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Standards; enabling the Secretary of State to provide, or to designate a person to provide, a licensing information database. The Bill would require all taxi and PHV licensing authorities in England to record, and input into the database, instances where they have refused to grant or renew a taxi or PHV driver’s licence, or suspended or revoked such a licence, because of certain safeguarding or road safety concerns.
- When a licensing authority in England receives an application to grant or renew a driver’s licence, the licensing authority would need to search the database for any entry relating to the applicant. If there is an entry on the database relating to that person, the licensing authority must seek further information from the relevant licensing authority that made the entry on the database. The licensing authority, when considering whether to grant or renew a driver’s licence, must have regard to any information provided by the other licensing authority as to why they previously decided to refuse to grant or renew, or to suspend or revoke, a licence for that driver.
- Separate to the database requirements the Bill would also require licensing authorities to report certain serious safeguarding or road safety concerns about a taxi or PHV driver working in their area to the licensing authority that granted a licence to that driver, the ‘home licensing authority’. The Bill would also require the home licensing authority to consider whether to suspend or revoke a driver’s licence as a result of any such information that is reported to them by another licensing authority.
- This will ensure that the home licensing authority, who is solely able to suspend or revoke that driver’s licence, is aware of information that suggests the driver poses a public safety risk.
We know that the majority of drivers provide an important and safe service for communities, but we cannot forget those horrendous incidents in places like Rochdale, Oxford, Newcastle and Rotherham; more must be done to protect passengers from those who abuse their position of trust.
I understand that the Local Government Association welcomes the Bill. I absolutely support it and commend it to the House.