On 23rd May 2014, the Law Commission published its report Taxi and Private Hire Services (the Report) outlining its recommendations for taxi and private hire services’ reform. The report proposes a single legislative framework to regulate both taxi and private hire services, repealing much of the piecemeal existing legislation.
The current position
Currently the regulatory regime differentiates between taxis which can be hailed in the street and private hire vehicles which must be booked in advance. The Law Commission proposes retaining this two tier system but with significant changes.
New offences will be created to distinguish more clearly between taxis and private hire cars. The imprecise concept on which the current regime relies on of “plying for hire”, a phrase not defined in statute has formed the basis of much inconsistent case law.
“Plying for hire” will be abandoned and it will be an offence to carry passengers for hire without the correct licence. A new offence will also be introduced making it unlawful for anyone other than a locally licensed taxi driver to accept a journey starting “then and there”.
The new regime would introduce national standards for all taxis and private hire services, which would be limited to public safety, accessibility and other issues relevant to enforcement and environmental protection. The new standards would replace locally set conditions but local licensing authorities would remain responsible for issuing licences and enforcement in relation to taxis and private hire vehicles. Local licensing authorities would also have the power to set additional standards for taxis but not for private hire vehicles.
Under the new regime all taxi and private hire drivers will have to undergo disability awareness training as a pre-condition of grant or renewal of a licence.
It is hoped that the introduction of national standards will remove the incentive for taxi drivers to seek licences in areas with lower fees or where there have been lower standards.
Definition of operator
The Report criticises the definition of “operator” who makes provision for the “invitation or acceptance” of bookings for private hire vehicles as being too broad as it brings intermediaries into scope.
The report recommends that operator licensing should only cover the functions of dispatching the vehicle and driver to fulfil a pre-booking and not the functions of inviting and accepting bookings, which in themselves would no longer require a licence.
Removal of restrictions relating to area and taxi numbers
Private hire operators will no longer be limited to using drivers and vehicles from their own area, nor will they be restricted to only inviting or accepting bookings within that licensing area.
Licensing authorities will be allowed to continue to limit taxi numbers. The current statutory criterion of “unmet demand” will be replaced with a public interest test. Licensing officers will have enhanced powers including a power to stop a licensed vehicle on the road without a police officer, to impound vehicles for touting and to issue fixed penalties to anyone believed to have breached national standards.
Whilst it is generally agreed that reform is necessary to update the historic and piecemeal legislation surrounding taxi licensing, the Law Commission's proposals are unlikely to be welcomed by all.
The introduction of national standards and disability awareness training should hopefully improve safety for passengers, but these changes will lead to increased regulation (and cost) as well as the potential for harsher penalties for those who fail to meet the new standards.