Taxi drivers fear criminal prosecutions after claiming council ‘error’

Taxi drivers say they are living in fear of facing criminal prosecutions after a new licensing authority’s move to unify the trade across a county left them “plying for hire illegally in an area in which it is not licensed”.

North Yorkshire Council has been warned by a consultant working for taxi drivers it has been reported to the Local Government Ombudsman after failing to acknowledge it had made an error when attempting to change where taxi drivers can work earlier this year or to take any remedial action.

It follows a taxi industry expert claiming in its rush to introduce a single area for taxis across the county the council had not followed the legal procedure to create a single hackney carriage licensing.

Earlier this year opponents of the council’s proposed taxi policy had told a meeting of the authority’s executive it would lead to the clogging up of taxis in town centres while leaving sparse cover in rural areas, particularly for wheelchair users.

A meeting of the authority’s executive heard that while a working group of elected members with significant experience of licensing had made a series of recommendations which the council’s officers had “tossed aside like a pair of old slippers” and come up with a series of different proposals.

Before the launch of North Yorkshire Council in April, taxis were licensed by the seven district and borough councils, which meant Hackney carriage taxis could only ply for hire on the ranks and in the streets in the area of the district council by which they were licensed.

In the weeks after vesting day, the new licensing authority oversaw all Hackney carriage taxis being able to ply for hire on all the ranks and streets of any town in North Yorkshire.

It is illegal for anyone to ply for hire in an area for which they are not licensed. On conviction, a fine of up to £2,500 may be imposed.

Although hackney carriage taxi drivers do not expect the council would prosecute them for plying illegally, as the council has already decided it wants Hackney carriage taxis to be able to ply for hire throughout the area, drivers are concerned they might still face prosecution by the police, and fines from the courts on conviction.

Richard Fieldman, formerly a Harrogate District Council hackney carriage taxi driver, said drivers had only discovered the council had not followed the legal procedure after seeking a consultant’s advice.

He said the council was applying different rules to hackney carriage taxis licensed in different parts of the county, “even though we were now supposed to be one area, subject to one set of rules”.

In a response to consultant David Wilson, of A2Z Licensing, the council said he had raised “important issues”, but added it did not agree it was facilitating the illegal operation of Hackney carriages within its area.

A council spokesman said: “The council has been clear through its communication, consultation and within the Executive report that the council intended to create a single Hackney carriage zone.”

Mr Wilson said as the council has failed to acknowledge its error and to take remedial action to comply with the current legal position, in the three weeks since the situation was brought to its attention in June, trade representatives were set to report the council to the ombudsman.

Mr Wilson said: “Although admitting an error was made may be embarrassing for the new council and those licensing officers and lawyers involved, we are all human and make mistakes from time to time.

“What is important is that the council acknowledges its mistake and takes urgent action to comply with the law, restricting hackney carriage taxis to ply for hire in one of the former seven district council areas until such time as the council legally merges then into a single area.

“Members of the public can, however, be reassured that a Hackney carriage taxi is insured, even if plying for hire illegally in an area in which it is not licensed.”

Hackney carriage driver Katie Johnstone said: “The time has come for the council to admit it has driven a coach and horses through taxi law and to get around the table with trade representatives to work out how this situation can
best be resolved.”

In response, North Yorkshire Council’s corporate director of environment, Karl Battersby, said: “We have received the letter and are taking legal advice on the points raised. We will be responding as soon as we can.”