Cross-border private hire freedom recommended in draft legislation

PD website news Law Commission logo 300The Law Commission’s final recommendations into restructuring the taxi and private hire industry have been published, drawing a mixed reaction from politicians, trade associations and operators.

The Draft Bill was published on May 23, and the Law Commission has recommended significant deregulation of the private hire sector, setting national standards for private hire vehicles and allowing greater freedom for operators to work across borders, while broadly maintaining a two-tier hackney taxi and private hire system. Only taxis would be allowed to be hailed or pick up passengers from ranks, as at present.

In a statement, the Law Commission said: “The new regime would see the introduction of national standards for all taxis and private hire vehicles, set by the Secretary of State for Transport, with the power for local licensing authorities to set additional standards for taxi services only. Local authorities would, however, remain responsible for issuing licences and enforcement in relation to both taxis and private hire vehicles.”

The Draft Bill recommends that private hire operators should be able to sub-contract work to other operators – which already happens in some regions. “Our recommendations make it easier for providers of private hire services to work cross-border, and give licensing officers new enforcement powers to deal with vehicles and drivers licensed in different areas. We also recommend tougher penalties on touting (actively soliciting customers), including impounding.”

The proposals would see single national standards applied across England and Wales, including London and Plymouth, where separate regulations apply. This would suggest that London PCO-style private hire licensing would become the default national standard, while allowing councils to define their own standards for rank taxis.

A ban preventing private hire vehicle owners from allowing other people, such as family members, to drive their vehicles will also be lifted. And the Law Commission recommends that councils review licences every three years for taxi and private hire vehicle driver licences and five years for private vehicle operator licences rather than annually.

The Law Commission also recommends that Pedicabs and novelty vehicles, including stretch limousines, should be brought clearly within the scope of taxi and private hire regulation. However, the exemption that applies to wedding and funeral cars should be maintained.

The Law Commission also recommends that taxi numbers should be controlled. “Our final report recommends that licensing authorities should retain the right to limit the number of taxis working in their licensing area,” the Law Commission stated.

North East Labour MP Grahame Morris has led criticism of the Draft Bill, claiming it will cut safety restrictions on private hire vehicles and could put passengers at risk. Morris, MP for Easington, said the changes could put the public at risk by making it harder for councils to ensure people with criminal convictions are stripped of their licenses. And allowing firms to sub-contract would mean that customers can no longer be sure of receiving a taxi service from drivers they know.

Allowing people without licenses to drive vehicles marked as taxis could lead to an increase in assaults on people who hail cabs in the street, even though minicab drivers are not supposed to stop for people who attempt to flag them down. Morris said the changes would undermine the industry’s own efforts to alert people to the dangers of unlicensed and unauthorised taxis.

Trade usions, including Unite, GMB and RMT, also oppose elements of the bill. Unite claimed “grey areas” could benefit less reputable firms. In particular, the union fears that changes that would allow a licensed driver to use a private hire vehicle legally in any part of England could flood local authorities with less restrictive license conditions with applications.

The National Private Hire Association, welcomed stronger sanctions for touting, though they need to be applied carefully, said regional secretary Dave Currie. Impounding vehicles could be going too far, he said. “Currently the penalties are not severe enough to stop some taxi drivers from touting. But to take a man’s vehicle, a man’s livelihood, would be excessive.

“The principle of increasing the penalty I can’t disagree with, but my concern is the power to impound vehicles could be abused. There is a very fine line – what one licensing office might see as touting, another one may not. It is very subjective and it would have to be dealt with very carefully.”

The Law Commission also recommends mandatory disability awareness training for all taxi and private hire drivers, as well as giving the Secretary of State the power to force large operators to meet certain quotas of disabled-accessible vehicles available to them.

The Bill will now be debated by Parliament later this month, with a view to implementation of the final new rules in 2015, though it is unclear whether this will be before or after the General Election, scheduled for May 2015.

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