It is almost universally accepted that the UK’s taxi & private hire licensing laws require a complete overhaul. Primary legislation regulating hackney carriage licensing in most of England & Wales dates as far back as 1847 and for private hire licensing, the legislation dates back to 1976.
There have been several attempts at persuading the Government to act decisively on wholesale reform of the taxi & private hire sector in England and Wales. The most notable of these were the Law Commission’s report in 2014 & more recently the Taxi & Private Hire Finish & Task Group’s recommendations published in October. It is widely accepted however that the Law Commission’s work is now generally irrelevant given the amount of time that has elapsed since the report.
Notwithstanding this, the Government has so far been lacking in its efforts to act. Over the last couple of years it has instead taken a piecemeal approach, legislating on issues in isolation where the opportunity has arisen.
The Government seems, for the time being at least, to be continuing with its piecemeal approach. There has recently been a raft of announcements from various Government departments about proposed future changes & plans relating to the taxi & private hire sector.
In this article, I will be looking at the Government proposals and what the implications are for the sector.
Mandatory tax registration checks for taxi & private hire drivers
In 2017, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) consulted on measures to “tackle” tax evasion in the “hidden economy” with particular reference to public sector licensing which included taxi & private hire licensing.
In the Autumn Budget 2018 announcement on 29 November, the Government announced:
Following the consultation ‘Tackling the hidden economy: public sector licensing’ published in December 2017, the Government will consider legislating at Finance Bill 2019 to introduce a tax registration check linked to licence renewal processes for some public sector licences. Applicants would need to provide proof they were correctly registered for tax in order to be granted licences. This would make it more difficult to trade in the hidden economy, levelling the playing field for compliant businesses.
The Government has confirmed that it will take forward proposals to introduce legislation to make taxi registration checks mandatory for taxi & private hire licensing. This will include:
- New applicants for a taxi/PH licence will be signposted towards tax obligations & HMRC services to ensure that they understand their taxable status & are able to register as soon as possible after they begin trading.
- Checks will be undertaken on those renewing licences to confirm & provide evidence of their tax-registration status.
- New “fit & proper” criteria may include an assessment of an applicant’s financial integrity.
These proposals will be included in the Finance Bill 2019 which is expected to come into force of 1 October 2019.
National air quality database for taxi & private hire vehicles
The Government has consulted on proposals to setup a national taxi & private hire database to help councils “distinguish private cars from taxis & PHVs” so to enforce air quality zones.
In this consultation, the Government said: “In some cases, local authorities will implement Clean Air Zones that apply charges to taxis & private hire vehicles (PHVs) but not to private cars. In these circumstances, local authorities will need to be able to distinguish private cars from taxis & PHVs.”
Under the Government’s proposals, licensing authorities will be under a statutory duty (through the use of powers under the Environment Act 1995) to share information about vehicles licensed in its area to be added to a centralised database to enable the identification of all taxis & PHVs operating in England & Wales.
The effect of what the Government is proposing is that when a taxi or private hire vehicle enters or drives within a charging Clean Air Zone, the licensed vehicle’s registration number will be detected using an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera. This information will then be checked against the central taxi & PHV database which will interact with the wider charging infrastructure being developed for charging Clean Air Zones.
If the driver of the vehicle fails to pay the charge within the required timeframe the local authority operating the charging Clean Air Zone will then issue a penalty charge if appropriate to the vehicle’s registered keeper.
This consultation has now closed & the Government is in the process of considering the responses. There have been no announcements on an implementation date, but it is expected that this database may be operational by 2019/20.
National refusals database for taxi & private hire drivers
Information about drivers who have had their licences refused or revoked is now being entered on to a national database for councils to check before issuing (or renewing) licences.
The national refusals database (also known as NR3) is an initiative of the Local Government Association (LGA) & hosted by the National Anti-fraud Network (NAFN) – an official agency that “supports the highest level of protection of the public purse & effective corporate governance.”
The LGA have written to licensing authorities to encourage them to register & upload data to the database including information dating back as far back as 25 years.
There has been long held concern by licensing authorities over the practice where drivers who have had their licences refused or revoked by one council then go on to other council areas where they apply again in hope of gaining a (re)licence.
Councils will be expected to check the details of licence holders & applicants against the new national database before (re)issuing licences.
The use of NR3 has now been implemented & is fully operational in England & Wales although at present the use of NR3 is voluntary and therefore take up may be slow.
Licensing of Taxis & Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding & Road Safety) Bill
This Bill partly mirrors what has already been implemented as part of the NR3 national refusals database. The Bill however goes further by proposing to place a statutory duty on licensing authorities to enter information on a national database & to search the database before granting a licence to a taxi or private hire driver. At present, the use of NR3 is not mandatory.
The Bill also makes provision for reporting concerns relating to cross-border hiring. Clause 5 of the Bill seeks to place a statutory duty on a licensing authority (A) to report to another licensing authority (B) “…relevant information relating to a person who has driven in the first authority’s area in reliance on a driver’s licence or a relevant licence granted by another licensing authority…” if that information relates to the person’s conduct in the first authority’s area the first authority is satisfied that, had it granted the licence, it would have considered suspending or revoking it in reliance on the information.
Clause 6 of the Bill proposes a statutory duty on the other licensing (B) to act on receipt of the relevant information.
This is a Private Members Bill, introduced by Daniel Zeichner MP, & is due for further Parliamentary scrutiny on the 23 of November when it is due to have its second reading. The Bill still has some way to go through the Parliamentary process & there is no date set for it receiving Royal Assent.
Government’s Hate Crime Action Plan
The Government has set out proposals to require taxi & private hire drivers to act on incidents of hate crime that are witnessed by them.
The plan, Action Against Hate, includes proposals to make “…taxi & private hire vehicle drivers identify & report hate crime in the night-time economy.” The Home Office said that it will do this by including advice “…in the Department for Transport’s best practice guidance on Taxi & Private Hire vehicle licensing.”
The DfT’s best practice guidance is due to be updated & republished in 2019 & the Government will encourage all 293 licensing authorities in England to adopt the guidance, including the “advice” that taxi & private hire vehicle drivers who witness cases of hate crime report it.
The hate crime action plan does not make it clear whether there will be a statutory requirement on taxi & private hire drivers to report hate crime but it will be important for the trade to use the opportunity to comment on the revised best practice guidance if there is an opportunity to do so.
The Government has set out a commitment under its Transport Accessibility Action Plan to introduce mandatory disability awareness & equality training for licensed drivers.
The Government said that it will by the 2019 publish for consultation revised best practice through which they will recommend that licensing authorities “require taxi & private hire vehicle (PHV) drivers to complete disability awareness & equality training”.
Transport Accessibility Action Plan
Finally, the Government has published its Inclusive Transport Strategy which sets out a number of commitments relating to the taxi & private hire sector.
Increased number of accessible vehicles
The strategy is clear that it will be looking to licensing authorities to use their licensing powers to improve accessible taxis & private hire in their local areas. It sets out the steps the DfT is taking to encourage local licensing authorities to increase the numbers of wheelchair-accessible taxis & private hire vehicles.
The strategy also set out plans for “Better enforcement of statutory regulations, for example, the carriage of assistance dogs in taxis & private hire vehicles.”
Designated lists (s. 167 Equality Act 2010)
There is likely to be an increase in the number of licensing authorities who will be adopting designated WAV lists that will place additional statutory duties on licence holders to carry people in wheelchairs & not to levy any additional charges for doing so.
The Government has said that it will publish a list of those authorities which do, & do not, publish lists of WAVs, to share best practice. If the number of authorities publishing these lists does not increase significantly, the Government will consider amending the Equality Act to mandate local licensing authorities to publish lists of wheelchair accessible vehicles in their local areas.
Ranks and infrastructure
The Government said that in the longer term they want the service currently provided by taxis and PHVs to be as accessible to disabled passengers as it is for those who are not disabled. It will do this by ensuring that vehicles are sufficiently accessible to provide for people with a range of access needs, that the means of hiring them is accessible, that passengers can be picked up or dropped off at a location convenient to them, and that no disabled person is ever left at the kerbside or charged extra for their journey.
The Transport Accessibility Action Plan proposals will be implemented in stages:
- From autumn 2018, publish data on an annual basis on the proportion of wheelchair accessible taxis and PHVs in local areas;
- From autumn 2019 publish on an annual basis a list of those authorities which we know to have issued a list of taxis and PHVs designated as being wheelchair accessible; and
- By end of 2019, publish for consultation revised best practice guidance to support local licensing authorities (LLAs).
It is clear from the broad range of issues and proposals referred to in this article that the taxi and private hire sector remains at the forefront of Government policy. It is important for the trade to be proactive in its engagement with the Government to ensure that future regulatory changes are proportionate and do not result in additional and unnecessary burdens in an already highly regulated industry.
Where there is opportunity, licence holders must respond to consultations, take the opportunity to lobby Government through MPs or trade representative bodies or, as a last resort, consider legal remedies.