Wes Streeting MP: The Queen’s Speech must include tougher regulations to guarantee passenger safety
There has been a year of delay, but the Government must act now to protect passengers everywhere and end cross-border hiring of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers, writes Wes Streeting
“It is clear that the status quo whereby taxi and private hire vehicle licensing is inconsistent, ineffective and incompatible with the protection of vulnerable people must not be allowed to continue. Alongside other incidents of criminality, the events in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and elsewhere have brought the fundamental flaws in the licensing regime into the sharpest possible focus; these oblige uncompromising determination to make taxis and PHVs safe for all.”
Those were the opening words of the report of the Task and Finish group, led by Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq, looking at the case for reform of the laws governing the taxi and private hire vehicle (PHV) industry. That report was published in September 2018. We’re still waiting more than a year later, even though the Government knows that the status quo is putting passenger safety at risk.
Taxi and PHV licensing in England is currently decentralised, with 293 licensing authorities having their own discretion to set standards for drivers, vehicles and minicab operators that they deem to be appropriate. Not only has this led to significant variations in both policy and practice between licensing authorities, it has also allowed unscrupulous drivers and operators to take advantage of the patchwork quilt of licensing rules and loopholes in the law to avoid more stringent licensing conditions.
The most egregious case of this can be found in Rotherham. The role that local minicabs played in the sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable young women is well documented. As a result, the local authority used its discretionary powers to put in place more stringent measures to protect the travelling public, including a requirement to have CCTV in operation. To our horror, MPs heard evidence of drivers being licensed in other authorities with lower safety standards and then operating in Rotherham in flagrant violation of the rules that local decision-makers had rightly put in place for their town.
There has also been evidence of drivers having a licence refused or revoked by one licensing authority – with good reason – and simply obtaining a licence elsewhere.
This practice, known as ‘cross-border hiring’ is widespread across the country. Councils have found themselves powerless to act when PHVs licensed in neighbouring boroughs turn up and operate in their area, despite not meeting the local regulations.
Theresa May’s Government accepted the need for reform. In their response to the Task and Finish Group, published in February this year, they agreed to introduce national minimum standards and to put in place new rules governing cross-border hire to tackle the menace of drivers and operators flouting local safety laws. They also agreed to put in place a national database of all licensed taxi and PHV drivers to support stronger enforcement. But this has never happened.
Nine months later, we have a new Government, a new prime minister and a new transport secretary. We can’t afford to delay any longer, or go back to the drawing board simply because the personalities at the top have changed.
Boris Johnson should be familiar with many of these challenges from his time as mayor of London. As he plans his Queen’s Speech and considers how he might get some achievements under his belt without a working majority, he can take comfort in the knowledge that a Taxi and Private Hire Bill would command strong cross-party support. It would demonstrate that, whatever our differences over Brexit, we can still come together in common cause to do some good. Most importantly, it would give passengers the confidence that, wherever they are in the country, they can use a taxi or minicab in the certain knowledge that they’re travelling safely.
Wes Streeting is Labour MP for Ilford North and Chair of the APPG on Taxis