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patrick-raeburn-2016

• Patrick Raeburn

Patrick Raeburn, secretary of the Private Hire Board, muses the provision of information by Transport for London and questions whether the licensing authority has ulterior motives…

THERE was a time in the recent past when the issue of private hire insurance (or alleged lack of it) seemed of great concern and significance to TPH and our competitors in the taxi trade. Yet last October, at a quarterly compliance meeting with officials of Taxi and Private Hire (TPH), it was clear from the licensing authority’s own data that inadequate insurance cover was not a problem within the London minicab industry.

• Inadequate insurance cover was never a problem

So why am I mentioning this? Simply because the private hire trade knew these claims of vehicles with no insurance were completely exaggerated, and would result in draconian regulations (see PHC Aug 2017). As a result of this, the Private Hire Board (PHB) will be pressing for an amendment to these regulations, as they are completely unnecessary.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, and there have been a number of rumours quoting incorrect statistics as well, along with anecdotes from TPH and the taxi trade, that have undoubtedly helped formulate regulations. One example of this is the unbelievable rise in operator licence fees. If this shambles of a policy is allowed to go unchallenged, many operators will go out of business, while those that survive will have to pass the costs on to drivers.

Thankfully it seems that the trade is not prepared to sit back and accept the way that the new fees have been formulated or the disproportionate amount that the licensing authority is forcing on operators, and a number of companies have met to formulate a plan to fight these charges.

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The PHB has pledged its support by donating £5,000 to the Licensed Private Hire Association (LPHCA), which is pursuing a legal challenge on behalf of the London PHV industry, opposing these fees.

However, the days of the few fighting on behalf of the many are over – and the trade must present a united front, as this will affect every operator, driver, controller and supplier. The PHB calls on everyone to be involved and act now, or became part of history.

What goes up must come down:  Now that it has imposed the new operator licensing fees, TPH has began explaining how it will operate. As an operator fleet increases in size to the next pricing band, the operator will have to apply for a new licence and pay the appropriate licence fees. If an operator decreases their fleet, again they must apply for, and pay the fee of, a new licence.

It seems  perverse that operators, who are experiencing a downturn in driver numbers (and so business), will be expected to find more money to reduce their licence fee. One can only assume that this is another gem born of the TPH comedy duo. The good news, of sorts, is that TPH will eventually get round to refunding the money paid on the unexpired months of the original licence.

• Fees hike will cause stagnation of private hire business growth

The PHB believes the differing operator fee bands will act as a brake on business development and are little more than a stealth tax on business success. Whether this is by design or an unfortunate consequence is anyone’s guess. However, a cynic would suggest that it can only be the former, as surely the professional analysts at TfL, who are, after all, highly paid transport professionals (right?), would have foreseen the potential for the stagnation of private hire business growth as being a possible consequence of the imposition of such a massive fees hike.

Allegedly, ‘London is open’. But with such a bureaucratic system and a licensing authority known for its lack of productivity when processing licence applications – the opposite would appear to be true.

Sexual offence statistics: TfL has released the latest sex offence figures, with 34 attributed to private hire. While the PHB condemns the tiny number of drivers that commit these offences, the issue of these statistics and the way they are presented suggests TPH has a less than fair-minded agenda when it comes to the private hire trade. For instance, why are unlicensed drivers referred to as ‘unlicensed minicab driver’ when you can’t pre-book them?

Some might argue that because the ‘unlicensed minicab driver’ was not pre-booked, but rather just randomly picked up a passenger on the street, that it actually makes them an ‘unlicensed taxi’. But in fairness, that would not be true either and any hackney cab driver would rightly consider that a slur on their profession. So surely, an unlicensed driver is just a member of the general public or a sexual predator and should not be labelled as anything other than that?

• If they have no PHV licence, they are not a minicab driver – simple!

Now this may appear to some that we are being pedantic. But in all matters concerning criminal offences – and perhaps particularly those of a sexual nature – perception is key. The incorrect classification of these deviants to the detriment of the genuine private hire trade must stop.

Another example of the misuse of information and its supply is the outrageous inclusion of the names of the private hire operators that alleged and convicted sexual predators worked at.

Regardless of conviction, why is there a need for the operator to be named – unless, of course, they conspired with the offender in the act? On the face of it, this unnecessary use of information seems quite malicious, and could result in operators incurring damage to their reputations and business.

Drivers are self employed and registered with an operator as a licensing requirement. It is also a condition of that requirement that operators inform TPH of any wrong-doings that they become aware of. The PHB believes that publishing this operator information in conjunction with sexual offences data is an abuse of the regulator’s own rules.

When is a confidence not a confidence?:  So, why is the licensing regulator releasing information that it appears to classify as exempt from provision to the public, even when a Freedom of Information (FoI) request is made?

To illustrate the point, the PHB made FoI requests in May 2017 which TPH denied saying: “These have been exempted on the grounds that this information has been provided to us by private hire companies in confidence, in order to demonstrate that they are complying with the necessary regulations.”

• Why did the regulator release operator details in relation to sexual offences committed by drivers?

This suggests to us that information supplied in confidence by operators should remain confidential – yet TPH used it when revealing operator information supplied in confidence in conjunction with sexual offences. Political grandstanding or deviance? Either way, this is not appropriate behaviour for a regulator and does not build constructive engagement.

The PHB is in the process of drafting a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

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