(Original edit of article for TAXI magazine this week).
One of the big scandals of 2019 was the fake English language tests for private hire drivers. English proficiency was rightly being tested by Transport for London at designated centres. Test certificates could also be obtained through equivalent qualifications gained at private colleges. Journalists investigating this weak spot found they could simply pay a sum of money and be awarded a certificate without sitting a test. A BBC journalist paid £500 to buy a qualification. When the resulting television expose was aired TfL had questions to answer. They thanked the journos for all their good work and promised to look into the matter. Would there be a Christmas knock on the door for minicab drivers who had bought certificates from a Mickey Mouse college?
TfL appeared to act decisively, but the matter should have been looked into from the outset. Transport for London is the gatekeeper of taxi & private hire legislation. They have the responsibility to those working within the trade, and to passengers, to ensure everything is above board. It shouldn’t be left to the media to investigate suspicious practices. TfL said they were “deeply concerned” and “will support the relevant authorities with any wider investigations into these organisations.” I thought TfL were the relevant authority: they are the authority who issue taxi and private hire licences, and they involve themselves in everything imaginable that happens on London’s streets; including closing roads at will, and telling us how to conduct our business. If TfL are the police, who are policing the police? I’m not sure where the mayor is either. This is happening on his watch, in his city. Where is the geezer?
TfL refused Uber a new licence towards the end of the year. I don’t know whether the ban will hold this time, but TfL are evidently aware of suspicious goings-on in the murky world of private hire. Since private hire licensing rocketed with the coming of Uber there have been insurance scandals, serious customer data breaches, and a huge crime rate amongst drivers that Uber have tried to cover up. There are many people driving minicabs who aren’t who they say they are. Those in the know in private hire circles can put you in touch with a tame doctor who can provide a guaranteed trouble-free medical without having access to your medical records. When I renewed my taxi licence I had to make an appointment with an optician, but I understand that even this isn’t necessary in the weird and frightening world of private hire. Private colleges should have been scrutinised along with all the other possible loopholes in minicab licensing.
Has the insurance matter been resolved? Are Uber drivers telling their insurance companies that they are working in areas they are not licensed for? Wolverhampton and Brighton come up a lot in discussions on cross border hiring: would a Wolverhampton-licensed driver working in Brighton be adequately insured? Don’t ask TfL, they’ll let someone else work that out. Cross-border hiring will surely continue to be a talking point this year, but our licensing authority will wring their hands and hope it all blows over.
Taxi complaints are handled directly by TfL. Complaints are taken seriously, though not as seriously as they were under the Public Carriage Office when the Police were running the show. Private hire complaints are handled in-house by individual operators. We only get to hear of incidents if they are serious enough to interest the media. Uber never took complaints seriously and that’s part of the reason why they were denied a new London licence, and why they’re sure to go through another very long and expensive court appeal.
TfL drag their feet looking at complaints, but move like greased lightning to bank the licence money from around 113,000 minicab drivers (outnumbering by at least five times the number of taxi licences). When I worked as a Knowledge Examiner a couple of my colleagues would photograph suspicious activity by out of town minicab drivers and report it. The camera footage would be sent upstairs, but we’d rarely hear back. They were undoubtedly too busy selling licences to act on evidence of illegal activity that was handed to them on a plate. The fact is that handling complaints doesn’t bring in any money. Issuing licences does. I’ll be hoping for a lot more from our licensing authority this year.