May 22

The Casey Column June 2012

The taxi trade at a crossroads

Writing this article should have been quite easy, I shouldn’t be struggling to put my thoughts into words as I appear to be doing at the moment. I was going to write an article berating other stakeholders for their silliness in bringing this Law Commission (LC) malarkey to my door, but I’m not going to, there is little point and it would serve no purpose other than make me feel a little less grumpy and probably alienate me from people I am going to have to work with during the next few months.

I could easily write about my foresight and wisdom, quoting my own words of warning from previous issues, citing examples where my predictions of peril have seemingly been correct – good for the spirit but of no significance to the soul, we face what we face.

For those of you who may have been residing in the proverbial barn this past month. The LC has come up with a consultation titled “Reforming the Law of Taxi and Private Hire Services”. Despite my own view being that the only thing missing from the beginning of the consultation are the words “Once upon a time”. I implore you to read chapter and verse. If you are going to answer it, and I seriously suggest you do, please make yourself well aware of what you’re signing up for – carefully read the rationale behind the questions before giving a viewpoint – if you find yourself getting tired by responding – put the document down and return to it later (the documents are available on the Law Commission website). I cannot stress the seriousness of this consultation enough; it has implications beyond the ken of many of us.

The documents themselves are difficult to read and digest, conspiracy theorists may suggest this was a deliberate ploy, however the implications are of such significance the documents cannot be ignored. In my view the documents are partial and selective, with the LC freely quoting Dr Darryl Biggar (whom I quoted a month or so ago), but only the points they would appear to agree on – they don’t for instance seem to be particularly bothered that they could be in the throes of creating private hire operator monopolies.

Amongst the main proposals are those of a private hire operator free for all (they would legalise cross border hiring) and one of taxi deregulation.

The LC cites National Standards for both private hire vehicles and drivers; yet fail to advise what those standards may be. The national standards are then used as an explanation to allow private hire operators to utilise vehicles and drivers licensed elsewhere, the rationale being that if all the standards are the same, it doesn’t particularly matter where the vehicle comes from.

This above point appears to have been missed by many – it contradicts the National Taxi Association belief that locals are best placed to decide – it undermines local licensing regimes – It goes without really saying, if a person agrees there should be a national standard for PH vehicles and drivers by definition that same person cannot seriously suggest the rule should be different in the case of taxi numbers controls – either locals are best placed to decide or they are not.

Ironically the government flagship policies of localism produced a document titled “A plain English guide to the Localism Bill” the foreword to the guide went as follows by Rt. Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Decentralisation;

“For too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power.

Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work.  It creates bureaucracy.  It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost.  And it leaves people feeling ‘done to’ and imposed upon – the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives.”   

Of course, what the LC proposes in respect of the taxi and private hire trades isn’t Localism, they plan to effectively remove locals from the decision making process – localised standards and conditions in the case of private hire would be expressly forbidden. This would appear to make locals akin to turnstile operators at football matches – giving unfettered power to unelected bureaucrats in Whitehall.

No doubt there will be some amongst you who will cheering from the rafters with national standards for private hire vehicles and drivers, however, to agree to a national standard with no idea of what the national standard will be, is bizarre at best, foolish at worst.  Of course, perhaps the best pre-assessment of the much coveted but highly secret, national standards for PHV’s and PHD’s is by remembering the planned inclusion of Wedding and Funeral vehicles and drivers in the new act.

The genuine fear is that the bar will have be low, the timescale the law commission set themselves certainly doesn’t seem to allow for much leeway  if private hire operators decide to protest against standards being too high and too rigid. Similarly, the standards must surely include those who are operating at low standards already, the appeasement of both will ensure the coveted standards will be ridiculously low to please all. Of course, when this happens we will have the literal ‘free for all’.

I am not going to quote chapter and verse of the LC documents, I couldn’t possibly do that (besides I already hog too much space), however, one of the reasons I ask you to read and think before answering questions is the following point which is raised by the LC.

Ban on sub-contracting outside of London

Under the current law it is illegal for operators outside of London to sub-contract any of their services. This means that an operator cannot ask another operator to fulfil a booking where the original car becomes unavailable or breaks down, or where it would simply be more efficient for another vehicle to undertake the journey.

The above is a perfectly innocent statement of what could happen, however, their proposal (number 41) is as follows;

Private hire operators should no longer be restricted to accepting or inviting bookings only within a particular locality; nor to only using drivers or vehicles licensed by a particular licensing authority.

Did you notice the term ‘operator’ appears to be missing from the proposal? Or were you not aware until I pointed it out?  The upshot of this will naturally be, a vehicle and driver from Manchester (and licensed by Manchester) could pay a radio rent fee to an operator in Merseyside, it could well transpire that we will see large national private hire firms – thus decimating local markets.

I’ve actually written almost 1000 words so far and not got to the issue many of you will have the most concern about, control of taxi numbers. There isn’t a lot to write actually, the LC don’t wish to see numbers control  – so much so – whilst they write a paltry 3 paragraphs on licensing fees – they dedicate chapters to why they think you should all starve to death. Indeed, the LC, appear to follow a consistent line of ‘head buried firmly in the sand’ type of thinking; they say nothing about where they believe these additional vehicles should stand for hire. Strange that, don’t you think? A document designed to be all thing taxi hasn’t anything about taxi ranks?

Rather surprisingly the LC does actually appear to be aware of the impact of deregulation, so much so, they ask for views on the best method of introducing it.  In many respects this is like a prisoner death row awaiting the electric chair being asked which utility company they’d prefer.

The LC documents leave many questions unanswered; for example they cite a turnover of £1.4 Billion, whereas the OFT quoted £2.2 Billion almost 10 years ago – I know it’s quiet at the moment – but losing a billion?

Save for the three paragraphs cited above in respect of fees – there is precious little of how much – or indeed even how – they expect to see licensing fees charged or worked out. They expect licensing officers in ‘honey-pot’ areas to enforce laws against ‘out of town’ vehicles and drivers, but they say little of how it’s going to be paid for. A rather bizarre contradiction – legislate to allow cross border hiring – without actually saying who’s going to pay for the policing.

Of course, your licensing departments may well have other things on their mind – catching those pesky funeral directors and wedding car companies who the LC want brought in to the licensing function. I imagine some over-zealous licensing officers right now are planning swoops on funeral corteges.

I did once write, be careful what you wish for, sadly my warnings not only went without being heeded, they could develop into a nightmare for you all.

Wayne Casey

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