Unable to attend in person, Norman Baker recorded a video speech National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers (NALEO) 20th October conference.
National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers (NALEO)
I’m sorry that I can’t be with you at your conference today, but thanks to video technology, I’m delighted to be able to make a contribution to this important event, even if it has to be from afar. However, this helps me to promote another part of my ministerial brief - namely alternatives to travel.
But when I do travel, I’m a regular user of taxis and private hire vehicles. They are two vitally important forms of transport and so I can speak to you from a passenger’s perspective as well as that of a minister!
The coalition government is committed to localism because the best form of government is one that lets people govern themselves.
If decision-making is devolved and power dispersed, problems are more easily defined and better solutions can be found.
Better taxi services can never be delivered through a one-size-fits-all approach. Every local community is different.
So, if they are to be efficient and profitable, then taxi services must be designed to meet the specific of needs specific local communities.
As well as offering bespoke services, localism also means ensuring value for money.
In all of this, you have a very important role to play. I think there is a standard of service to which all passengers - whether in a small rural village or a large city - should be entitled to expect and receive.
And I recognise that the legislative framework is complex and it is very old, but - importantly - it does provide you with the tools for ensuring that drivers and vehicles are properly assessed and tested.
From my perspective, I want to know that drivers have been properly assessed, that they know where they are going, that the vehicle is safe and - my own personal predilection - that I have adequate ventilation in the vehicle.
And I have no doubt at all that you undertake your responsibilities in a diligent way with the public safety objectives at the forefront of your minds.
The public rely on you to ensure that their journeys are safe and comfortable. And it’s not only local people; visitors to the area also rely on the convenience of taxi travel.
Taxis services often provide them with their first impression of a new town or city. The trade, and you as regulators, have an important role to play in ensuring that those first impressions are positive ones.
However, most of you will, I ‘m sure, have seen in the national press that I encountered problems of my own when using a taxi recently in Liverpool.
The driver simply couldn’t understand my directions, the postcode I gave him or the map I showed him.
That is unacceptable.
The ability to communicate with passengers is a fundamental pre-requisite for carrying out a service of this nature.
Therefore I urge you incorporate in your driver assessment an ability to communicate with passengers, whether as part of the topographical knowledge test or whether as a self-standing test before an applicant proceeds to the next stage of assessment.
And, on the theme of driver assessment, let me stress the importance I attach to thorough background checks.
I’m particularly uneasy about the idea of applicants with convictions for sexual offences being granted licences.
I know that you are all waiting patiently or maybe even impatiently, for the outcome of the government’s reviews on criminal record checks and the safeguarding vulnerable groups scheme.
Let me assure you that the Department for Transport is feeding into the reviews. We know that you want a consistent and rigorous level of check and we are making those views known to colleagues in government.
However, I would sound a note of caution about over-regulating - and I am thinking here more about elements of vehicle licensing.
Is it really necessary for the taxi owner with tinted windows to get them all replaced?
Is it really necessary for the owner of a vehicle with 7 or 8 seats to remove 1 or 2 of the seats?
Taxi and PHV owners and drivers are working in a difficult economic climate. The costs they incur in meeting the regulations you set and the conditions you attach, really matter to them.
That is why I would take this opportunity to commend the department’s best practice guidance.
Its key message is - ensure that any regulation you impose is commensurate with the benefit you want to achieve.
Passenger safety also relies of course, on your rigorous enforcement efforts. And, properly licensed drivers rely on you to provide them with a level playing field.
In this difficult economic climate, it must be tremendously tempting for unlicensed individuals to go out touting for the evening in an unlicensed vehicle.
Or for the owner of a licensed vehicle to lend it to an unlicensed friend or relation for a shift.
Quite possibly that’s what happened to me in Liverpool.
If you haven’t already thought about using mystery shoppers to assist with the enforcement and ongoing monitoring role, then you might do so.
Most drivers in the district - and unlicensed individuals - probably recognise your team of enforcement officers a mile off - where as anonymous individuals reporting back to the licensing authority can provide a better perspective.
Let me turn now to the most topical issue of the day - the Equality Act 2010.
You will have seen guidance notes from the department about the taxi elements that came into force on 1 October.
Imposing duties on drivers to assist passengers in wheelchairs represents a whole new approach.
It was clear from consultation responses received by the department last year that disabled people wanted to see driver duties implemented as soon as possible.
The Equality Act introduces the new concept of “designated vehicles” - the consequence of a vehicle being on the list of designated vehicles is that the driver must undertake the duties to assist.
The fact that the legislation gives licensing authorities a power to keep a list of designated vehicles means that licensing authorities are free to make the decision as to whether they do or do not maintain such a list.
However, I would take this opportunity to strongly urge licensing authorities to maintain such a list.
After all, the end product will be a better service for disabled people.
Over the coming months, you will be asked for exemptions from people who, because of their own condition or medical fitness, will be unable to comply with the duties to assist passengers in wheelchairs.
This is an important task and one which requires you to perform a delicate balancing act. It’s important to retain good drivers despite their physical limitations. Equally, we must ensure that sufficient numbers of drivers are obliged to adhere to the duties so that disabled people actually reap the benefits.
Whilst on the subject of assisting people who use wheelchairs, I I believe the taximeter should only be started once a passenger is safely aboard.
Drivers who start their taximeter beforehand are effectively penalising disabled people in a completely unacceptable way. So I hope you will monitor this too in a vigilant way.
Many drivers are entirely familiar with dealing with people who use wheelchairs and do it every day without any problem.
But, some might not be trained and so anxious about the new duties because they don’t know what to do - even though they might have a tremendous willingness to help.
So I would urge you to take a pro-active approach in helping drivers to access the training they need.
I’m aware that the industry has been developing professional qualifications for taxi and PHV drivers and I’d like to see this good work continue.
More generally, we’re still considering the commencement plan for the remaining sections of the Equality Act.
An announcement will be made when we know the details of the plan and you will be alerted through the usual channels.
In the meantime, apologies once again for my absence today, but I genuinely appreciate the valuable role which you play in keeping the travelling public safe.
And I hope you have a constructive and successful conference.