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TAXI CROSS-BORDER DIVIDE: The House of Commons debates controversial working practice


Image credit: DALL.E (AI generated)

In a debate within the hallowed walls of the House of Commons this February, the contentious issue of cross-border hiring within the taxi sector took the spotlight once more, stirring a robust dialogue among parliamentarians.


Cross-border hire, a practice allowing taxi and private hire drivers to operate outside the jurisdiction of their licensing authority, has long ignited controversy. Critics argue it creates an uneven playing field, with out-of-area drivers bypassing stringent local regulations, thus impacting fares, safety, and standards.

Shadow Minister Stephanie Peacock raised the issue, querying the Transport Minister on efforts to harmonise taxi licensing standards across local authorities. In response, Guy Opperman of the Department for Transport highlighted the guidance issued to regulate the sector and mentioned a national database initiative aimed at preventing ‘licence shopping’ by disqualified drivers.


Local concerns were voiced by Peacock, spotlighting Barnsley drivers' plight, undercut by cross-border operators skirting local regulatory frameworks. She pressed for government action, echoing sentiments across the chamber.


Labour MP Clive Betts underscored the personal nature of taxi services, advocating for legislative changes to ensure vehicles are licensed only if journeys commence or conclude within the licensing authority's domain. Interestingly Opperman countered, noting regulatory amendments enabling action CAN be taken by local authorities against non-compliant operators working across jurisdictions.


The dialogue intensified as Daniel Zeichner addressed the persistent cross-border issue and the evolving landscape of operator-driver relationships, punctuated by the looming spectre of VAT on private hire journeys. Opperman defended the timeliness of legislative updates, rebuffing suggestions of antiquated regulations.


Louise Haigh, drawing from her experience with the Rotherham scandal, criticised the Government's deregulatory stance on taxi standards as compromising safety, particularly for women and girls. Opperman retorted, citing recent legal mandates enforcing stringent record-keeping by licensing authorities to safeguard passengers and uphold the integrity of the taxi and private hire sector.


The Commons clash highlights the divided opinions on cross-border hiring in the industry. With an election looming, parliamentarians are set to grapple further with the complexities of modernisation, safety, and competition within this essential industry.


THE DEBATE IN FULL:


Stephanie Peacock, Shadow Minister for Digital, Culture and Sport, asked what steps the Transport Minister is taking to ensure consistent standards of taxi licensing across local authorities.


Guy Opperman, a Minister for Department for Transport (DfT), said: “The Department for Transport issues guidance to licensing authorities in England to help them regulate the sector, including the statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards and the best practice guidance, updated in November 2023. Last year the Government enacted legislation requiring licensing authorities in England to use a national database to share information, in order to prevent drivers who have lost their licence from applying to other authorities that would not know about their previous wrongdoing.”


Peacock returned to the floor to add: “Local taxi drivers in Barnsley are having their prices undermined by cross-border taxi drivers who do not have to abide by the same regulatory measures. Local councils have no jurisdiction over out-of-borough hires, and concerns have been raised about differences in the training and safety precautions required. The Labour party has committed to action. When will the Government do the same?”


Opperman responded: “There is already a database and already a duty on local authorities to share information. Licences can be taken away in the particular circumstances the hon. Lady identifies.”


Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, asked: “Taxis and private hire vehicles are a very personal service, and it is important for customers that both the vehicles and the drivers have proper safety checks, so that if things go wrong they can take a complaint to the licensing authority. The problem is that when that authority is 100 miles away in Wolverhampton, the system simply does not work. When will the Minister legislate to ensure that journeys can be made in a licensed vehicle only when they either take place or finish in the licensing authority area?”


Opperman responded: “With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have already brought in changes to the rules that mean that individual authorities can take action against an individual operating in another authority, which is something I think he should welcome.”


Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge, then asked: “As we have heard from colleagues, the cross-border issue remains a real problem right across the country. We have the additional problem of the potentially changed relationship between operators and drivers, which is highlighted by the press campaigns about the possible imposition of VAT on private hire journeys. Does all this not show that the Department should have modernised taxi and private hire legislation ages ago, rather than waiting for companies such as Uber to drive a coach and horses through regulations that were, frankly, written in the time of coaches and horses?”


Opperman responded: “I would not refer to regulations written in 2020 and updated in 2023 as written in the time of coaches and horses—perhaps the hon. Gentleman should check his history. On the Uber case that he rightly identifies, that is clearly a court case that the Government have to address and will therefore consult on thereafter.”


Louise Haigh, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, said: “During my time in this House, I have worked alongside victims and survivors of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Following the scandal, Rotherham council set very high standards for its taxi drivers, including installing CCTV in cabs and requiring national vocational qualification level 3 on child safeguarding. Those standards are being undercut by the Government’s deregulation of taxi standards, and nothing the Minister has set out this morning will stop that. Does he not agree that the Government’s position is putting the safety of women and girls at risk? Is it not time for robust legislation and national minimum standards to protect them?”


Opperman responded: “With respect, on 27 April 2023 a new law came into force that requires licensing authorities in England to use a database to record refusals, suspensions and revocations made on safeguarding or road safety grounds. The new requirements mean that individuals who are not fit and proper to hold a taxi or private hire vehicle licence will be unable to apply for a licence with other authorities without that authority being made aware of past safety concerns. That change will help to protect passengers, including women and girls, as well as the reputation of the majority of drivers, from those who are unfit to hold that office.”

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