One of the most tragic ways that MPs and Politicians fail the Electorate, is by giving excessive weight to the advice and input from membership organisations that sell and portray themselves as representative of entire demographics or communities. For they are susceptible to the very same biases, tunnel vision and levels of self interest on the part of their representatives and leaders that the MP would be expected to consider if they were just talking to any one person alone.
All too often, Ministers who have little or no real-world experience of their brief or the wherewithal to understand at an intrinsic level, what someone is telling them who has, respond in knee-jerk fashion to what these organisations tell them. They are under the misapprehension that the words of such representatives genuinely reflect the will and desires of whole swathes of the Electorate, when reality is that they seldom do any such thing.
With four years experience as a Licensing Chair which ended in 2015, I was intrigued to hear the news that the Government is now to Consult on changing the qualification rules for Taxi, Hackney and Private Hire Drivers. The direction of travel suggested being to emphasise that the rules governing their Regulation should become more uniform, and therefore centralised so that an applicant or driver dealing with one Licensing Authority would now be effectively dealing with them all as one.
In principle this sounds good. There is definitely a disconnect between the reality that Drivers are often only Registered or ‘Licensed’ by one Local Authority, but in almost every case other than a large Licensing Area such as London, they will cross into the jurisdiction of at least one and possible many others perhaps as often as every day.
This does indeed leave grey areas over infringements in the regulatory sense. But more importantly where existing Taxi Drivers and their Operating Companies are concerned, there is a big issue over outsiders treading on toes. Vehicles from other areas are perceived to be stealing business from ‘local firms’ with the subsequent suggestion that the Authority Licensing that ‘outsider driver’, employs a policy where anything goes.
Because Taxi Licensing Policy is open to localised tweaks, additions and therefore non-adoption of policies which might have been adopted elsewhere too, it is easy to give fictitious credence to the arguments that roll away from myth that every Authority is run differently.
The reality is that the rules governing all forms of Licensing are already heavily centralised, have been set in London and in the main part with basic issues like qualification, are pretty much consistent wherever you might go.
Unfortunately, the Taxi Lobby has form when it comes to influencing Politicians to change rules for their own ends.
A decade ago, changes to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 closed a loop-hole preventing private drivers from gaining a fee for transporting Special Educational Needs Students between their homes, schools and colleges. Sold as a way to raise safety standards, the outcome of this ring-fencing of local authority contracts to a the closed audience which lobbied for it landed Local Educational Authorities with an average additional annual bill of at least £1 Million, without any indication that the benefit to the end user at larger was in any way improved.
Yes, there is always a need to make sure that the rules are tight. But rules can also be twisted to benefit those with the most to gain whilst there is a significant cost to others.
We should all be very concerned about the potential for further regulation which is being sold as being in the best interests of the Public, that may actually only favour particular types of operators, has the potential to price others out of the marketplace and put up prices for all customers.
All this at a time when Taxis themselves are increasingly the only lifeline available for people disadvantaged by the remote nature of their communities, where commercialisation of public services has failed them more than perhaps most.
Like Planning Law, which is often perceived mistakenly as being set locally by District Level Authorities, Licensing is predominantly set centrally already. It is just interpreted in the main part by Local Licensing Authorities.
In what is a typically quasi-judicial setting that some would recognise as not being massively dissimilar to the Magistrates Court, applications and reviews that cannot be determined by Officers under delegated powers are heard by a panel or bench of three of the Council’s Licensing Committee Members.
Within such a setting, there is regrettably always a chance that because of the inconsistency in the quality, approach and motivation of local Politicians – as with Parliament – that you will get a different outcome from a hearing. It is very much dependent upon who is sitting, who is chairing and facilitating, how they interpret the evidence given, how they are advised by Licensing Officers and yes – just because it’s the way that it all went that day.
It is here that there is real inconsistency within the Licensing system.
But this inconsistency needs to be tackled with measures put in place to ensure that there is consistency in determinations, that impartiality is the guiding factor in all outcomes and that nobody sitting in ‘judgment’ is allowed to influence a decision because of personal bias, experience or because they are on a power trip and want to get their own way that day.
The risk in moving towards a national form of Licensing administration is that it will remove what little flexibility is left within the system. Flexibility that needs to be monitored and improved, but not overlooked, forgotten or ignored.
Not everyone wants to be a Taxi Driver. Many people take on the role as an in-between to keep themselves working whilst the move between other things. Some take on the work because they do not like being employed but do not want the responsibility of being self-employed in the generally accepted sense and are as such making the very best of things that they can.
Yes, there have been some very serious cases of Taxi Drivers abusing the responsibility and the trust that they have been given. But whilst what those individuals have done is wrong, the cases that are now being used as a reference point for changing the whole industry are statistically very few, and like in many areas where Government Policy is being used to pursue the passions of the few, there is an inherent danger to this of the tail being used to wag the whole dog.
The signifiant danger is that by appearing to tighten up rules which are already working well – when you consider that you will never create the perfect system, there are many would-be Taxi Drivers who could be assets to an industry which itself is facing challenging times, which will be denied entry to these roles at an incalculable cost.
People who could now, through the further synchronisation of rules be excluded because of the already overzealous nature of decision making in the public sphere, where risk of any kind – which includes giving people the benefit of the doubt when they are turning their lives around or are leaving mistakes made in their youth a long way behind – would be in much shorter supply.
Dehumanising the system might be reflective of the world at large, but the disadvantage and cost of such steps will be much more far-reaching than what will only ever be a perceived and tangible benefit to very few.
image thanks to unknown