- Meeting of Communities & Localism Select Committee, Thursday, 24th September, 2020 10.00 am (Item 6.)
Buckinghamshire Council is aligning policies and procedures in respect of taxi and private hire licensing matters to ensure that decision making is consistent and drivers, vehicles and operators are held to the same standards across the Council. Pre-engagement work, including the views of this Select Committee, will feed into the final draft policy document which will be presented to the Cabinet Member for Regulatory Services and then the Licensing Committee in October 2020.
Fred Wilson – Cabinet Member for Regulatory Services
Carl Jackson – Chairman of Licensing Committee
Lindsey Vallis – Transition Head of Licensing, Cemeteries and Crematoria
Simon Gallacher – Principal Licensing Officer, Aylesbury area
Caroline Steven, Licensing Team Leader, Wycombe, Chiltern and South Bucks area
The Cabinet Member for Regulatory Services introduced the report and reported that Buckinghamshire was one of the largest taxi licensing authorities in the Country with 3,500 drivers and 2,500 vehicles. The Council’s taxi and private hire licensing policy was an important document that demonstrated the Council’s commitment to securing public safety, provided clarity for applicants and licence holders, assisted decision making, facilitated enforcement activities and helped safeguard against legal challenge. The creation of Buckinghamshire Council presented an opportunity to create a new policy that incorporated the new statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards, promoted the highest possible standards to secure public safety, supported the Council’s key priorities of protecting the vulnerable and would help improve the environment and promote the local economy.
The Cabinet Member for Regulatory Services reported that a new draft policy document was being prepared, ready for consultation later this year, with a view to adoption next year which would have regard to the Department for Transport Statutory Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Standards which came out in July 2020. The aim of this document was to introduce consistency in the licensing system and reduce the risk of harm posed to children and vulnerable passengers. Councils must have regard to these new standards and it was expected that they would be adopted unless there was a compelling local reason not to.
The Chairman of the Licensing Committee informed Members of the Workshops that had been held to obtain the views of Licensing Committee Members to review, consider and discuss areas of policy harmonisation and the potential implications and impacts of decision making in particular policy areas. He also referred to pre-engagement consultation with external stakeholders which was taking place between 7 – 27th September in the form of an online survey Your Voice Bucks which was available on the Council website and had been publicised to the following stakeholders; public, school transport users and the taxi trade.
Lindsey Vallis, Transition Head of Licensing, Cemeteries and Crematoria informed Members that the drafting of this policy was a Cabinet Member priority with wider benefits such as protecting the vulnerable, improving the environment and the local economy. Members noted the following points:-
- Each legacy Council had different licensing policies including fee structures, conditions and bye laws which continue to exist for each geographical area until a single policy was agreed. It was really important that decision making was consistent across the Council and that drivers, vehicles and operators were working with the same standards in place. They need to be working under the same fee levels and ensure parity and consistency for both the taxi licensing trade and travelling passengers.
- The work already undertaken had been a collaborative project with experienced licensing officers across the Council and a leading legal expert on licensing. Officers had also worked with other service areas in the Council such as home to school transport (particularly relating to children with special educational needs), safeguarding employment and the climate change team.
- Responses from Your Voice Bucks had been very positive so far with 498 responses, 58% of those were from residents, 35% taxi trade and the survey was being promoted further by the communications team before the deadline.
- The current projected timetable was that Licensing Committee would consider the draft policy on 14 October 2020 and if approved, an eight week public consultation would be carried out. Following consultation the response would be considered by the Licensing Committee and the Cabinet Member in February 2021 before finally being approved by full Council.
- Reference was made to the Department of Transport standards which had been put in place mainly because of historical exploitation cases. In Buckinghamshire the majority of these recommendations had already been adopted by each geographical area such as mandatory safeguarding training for drivers, English language testing and information sharing with the police. However, there are some additional requirements such as 6 monthly DBS checks and subscription of drivers to the DBS updater service, annual DBS checks for vehicle owners, local consultation on the use of CCTV in taxi vehicles to determine whether mandating its use would have a positive or adverse impact on safety.
During discussion the following responses were given to Member questions:-
- A Member asked if they could be assured that the changes were in line with Council policy and in line with taxi and private hire service legislation 2014 and government statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards published in July 2020. In addition, whether the family information service had been involved in assuring that the special education needs interest have been considered in line with the changes in March 2019 with regard to safety of young children and in addition the Children’s Social Care and Learning Select Committee report recommendations to the Cabinet on 11 January 2016 on preventing child sexual exploitation. The Transition Head of Licensing reported that they had been working very closely with the Council’s Client Transport Team and with the Safeguarding Employment Team and they would be giving a presentation to the two Safeguarding Boards in the next few weeks.
- A Member emphasised that the policy would be part of a wider transport service as currently there were no cycle ways in place and the bus service needed to be supplemented by other forms of transport such as taxis. The Cabinet Member reported that aside from public safety the other main aim of this policy was the maintenance and development of a professional and respected hackney carriage and private hire trade and to enable access to a local efficient and effective transport service and support tourists and the local environment. The Member suggested that the final policy should look like a transport document. The Transition Head of Licensing commented that this document would be used daily by officers and the taxi trade as it set out the standards, the requirements for entrants into the taxi trade, vehicle requirements and their maintenance. She referred to the survey which asked a question about the location of taxi ranks and whether they were in the right place for the public and how they work in town centres and villages. They would like to gauge opinion from the public and the trade whether there were enough and in the right place and feed that back to town centre colleagues in order to look at this as a whole policy rather than just licensing. In addition officers had been liaising with climate change colleagues and had asked questions as part of the pre-engagement work around whether to incentivise the use of electric and hybrid vehicles and move towards a more environmentally friendly form of transport for the future.
- A Member referred to issues with unregistered and cross border taxis and it emphasised that it was important to be connected to other authorities. He also referred to the idea of a taxi bus which would cut the cost to individuals also making it affordable to groups. The Chairman referred to community transport. Another Member suggested contacting Community Impact Bucks who had undertaken a project in this area and had some good examples of providing community transport which was being led by residents and supported by partners. With regard to the taxi bus this would be outside the remit of the draft licensing policy but was an interesting idea which should be shared with colleagues dealing with community transport. Currently with Covid-19 regulations there was a limit on the number of passengers (6) in a taxi.
- The Transition Head of Licensing referred to cross border work and commented that a single policy for Buckinghamshire would put the Council in a much better position to work with neighbouring authorities. There were examples of local area enforcement protocols in place already e.g. Aylesbury Vale has a protocol with Milton Keynes Council which enabled them to stop and address any issues on vehicles which were licensed in Aylesbury Vale if they were seen operating in their area. The Deregulation Act opened up the market for taxis and it was entirely legal for them to operate outside their local authority area therefore it was an ongoing challenge to ensure appropriate mechanisms were in place to undertake enforcement in other areas and having a single policy would enable officers to build on that framework with other protocols e.g. Slough.
- With regard to safeguarding, a Member asked that any data kept on vulnerable adults and children would be subject to GDPR and that any data sharing by taxi companies would result in loss of licence. The Transition Head of Licensing reported that their service does not hold any information on vulnerable adults or children and if they were working with the Client Transport Team, this Team would manage that information about their service users with the Licensing Team supporting them on licensing objectives. The only time they may hold information was a result of a direct complaint or intelligence from the police and they would act within the GDPR and have privacy notices in place which clarified where data was shared and for what purpose. Where there was potential criminal activity there was a requirement to share information with partners e.g. police. As part of putting the new policy in place GDPR and privacy statements would be reviewed to ensure that there was a single approach going forward. In terms of taxi companies managing the data that they hold the Licensing Team Leader reported that operators must comply with ICO requirements including GDPR. In terms of losing licenses each case had to considered on its own merits. A Member asked whether operators had unique information on vulnerable children and adults and the Licensing Team Leader confirmed that operators do have access to a large amount of sensitive information so it was vital that this information was kept secure.
- A question was asked on whether advertising on vehicles would be consistent across Buckinghamshire and was there any restriction on taxi vehicles parking in residential areas. The Licensing Team Leader reported that the parking issue was controversial and they received a number of complaints about operators sometimes not parking in a considerate way. The issue was that if they were legally parked and the operator lived in that road they should be treated as any other resident. There were conditions for operators to not cause a nuisance in the way they operate their vehicles and if there were a cluster of vehicles parked inconsiderately they would raise this with the drivers and the operator. In terms of advertising, taxi and private hire vehicles should be clearly identified so that the public know they are getting into a licensed vehicle. It was felt that other forms of commercial advertising were not appropriate other than advertising their own company. A Member commented that it would be helpful to allow some modest advertising which could also help with public service announcements. If agreed, the draft policy would have an 8-week consultation and if there were strong views about advertising this would be taken into account in the final policy.
- A Member asked about the legacy policies of the former District Councils and whether they differed a lot and in drafting the new policy whether the ‘best bits’ had been used from each policy or whether officers were starting from scratch having regard to the new DfT standards. In addition, whether the new policy would have budget implications and whether the licensing fees would cover any extra costs. The Cabinet Member responded by saying that the previous policies had differed quite significantly which was quite a challenge but best practice had been taken out of each policy. In terms of the budget the DfT standards had imposed additional responsibilities but new digital systems were being considered to minimise that cost impact.
- A Member referred to taxi companies being used for illegal activities such as delivering drugs and child trafficking. The taxi company would be asked to pick up young people who would then deliver the drugs and money. The protocol was that if the taxi driver was aware of this to continue the journey but report it to the police afterwards who would have information on the addresses. If all taxi drivers did report this criminal activity, it could help close this down. He hoped that the new draft policy would encourage drivers to report. The Transition Head of Licensing reported on the mandatory training given to drivers which included County Lines and ensuring that drivers worked with the Team to protect vulnerable children and adults. The Team also work very closely with the police and if they receive any intelligence this would be actively followed up and where required robust action would be taken against any drivers or operators involved if there was fault on their side. If a member of the public complained then the Team would work with the police to take enforcement action, when required. The Principal Licensing Officer also reported that drivers could report directly to the police and the safeguarding team rather than go through the operator and were given information cards with contact details.
- With regard to CCTV the standards advocate local consultation to determine whether CCTV would have a net positive or adverse impact on safety which could protect both the driver and the passenger. In Buckinghamshire CCTV was not currently mandated but some of the trade had been contacting the Licensing Team for some time to put CCTV in their taxis as a deterrent to the high risk activities they undertake, particularly late at night and the Team had ensured that ICO guidance was given. It was also beneficial to the Team in terms of enforcement where complaints had been received. There was a cost associated with this at £400 per vehicle.
- A question was asked about how the driver was protected, particularly if they had unknowingly been involved in a criminal activity which they then reported. The Licensing Team Leader reported that they have a duty of care to protect any information that was reported to them and when the police carry out any investigations they have to bear this in mind to protect the driver and were used to protecting sensitive information. Information would never be supplied on a complainant’s details, unless required for investigation by the police.
- Reference was made to the company ‘Uber’ and whether they were currently operating in Buckinghamshire. The Transition Head of Licensing reported that Uber were required to operate under the same standards so they would need to have an operator base in the area which took the bookings. Uber had been licensed in the Aylesbury and Wycombe area, however both those licenses had lapsed. Many taxi operators however were using similar technology so residents can book a taxi online via an app.
The Cabinet Member and officers were thanked for attending the Committee and for providing an excellent update on their work.