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News, comment and advice on the UK taxi and private hire trades

Uber’s Liverpool arrival could be delayed until after May’s elections

Posted by admin on March 20th, 2015

Source: Liverpool Echo

Taxi booking firm Uber could have to wait until after the General Election before it finds out if it can open in Liverpool despite thousands of people in the city having already signed up for their service.

The company – currently going through the city’s licensing process – says more than 25,000 people have downloaded its app already in Liverpool in preparation for its arrival.

But those waiting to book a ride through Uber may have to wait for at least another seven weeks, as licensing chiefs prepare to contest local and national elections.

News of Uber’s plans to operate in Liverpool broke last year when the company began advertising for a general manager to launch the firm’s Merseyside presence.

Since then the company has appeared before the city’s licensing panel, which deferred making a decision on the application and asked Uber for more information about the company’s procedures.

Uber had been hoping its application would be considered this month, however it is not on the agenda for today’s meeting and the next hearing will be subject to the licensing committee’s electoral commitments.

A spokesman for the company, which says demand has soared for its launch with 25,000 people downloading Uber in Liverpool in the last two month’s alone, told the ECHO: “We have been overwhelmed with the response from both riders and drivers following announcing our intention to begin operations in Liverpool. We now have everything in place to launch in Liverpool and are just waiting for the operators license from the council.”

Liverpool’s licensing committee is formed by councillors who, with voters going to the polls in local and national elections on May 7, are likely to be campaigning to keep their seats or help their colleagues in the build up to polling day.

A spokesman for the council said Uber’s application is intended to be heard at the next licensing hearing but a date is yet to be fixed for that and would be subject to the electoral commitments of the committee.

Uber’s proposal to join the Liverpool taxi scene has caused concern among the city’s black cab and private hire drivers, with Liverpool Taxi Alliance telling members to “be worried” when its plans were revealed.

Sefton-based taxi firm Delta is also seeking to set up an office in the city while GetTaxi, a booking system similar to Uber, launched in February and Alpha Taxis is investing £700,000 to overhaul its operations.

The growth of Uber, which is based in dozens of countries around the world, has proved controversial with some cities banning some of its services amid safety and regulatory concerns.

Earlier this month Uber reassured potential customers in Liverpool that its services were safe, value for money and that the company was ready for Liverpool.

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Uber: ‘We are safe, value for money and ready for Liverpool’

Posted by admin on March 6th, 2015

Source: Liverpool Echo

Controversial taxi firm Uber says city drivers are already registering interest in working for the company as it prepares to launch in Liverpool.

The business – which has seen some of its services banned amid safety and regulatory concerns in cities around the world – also says Merseysiders have already started downloading its booking app in preparation for its arrival.

And as the company gears up for its Liverpool launch Uber today tells potential customers it is safe, good value and looking forward to working here.

News of Uber’s advance to the city broke last year when jobs were first advertised for its Liverpool-based operation.

While the company is currently going through Liverpool council’s licensing process and does not have a firm date for its launch, it is hoping to start working here in the coming months.

Uber is already in several UK cities, including Manchester and London, and has operations around the globe. But the company has been the subject of controversy, with concerns raised over its services.

Speaking to the ECHO Jo Bertram, Uber’s UK and Ireland general manager, sought to reassure potential customers as the company plans its Liverpool launch.

What is Uber?

Uber is a taxi firm where customers are able to book and pay for cars online – meaning no cash exchanges hands. The fare is paid directly to Uber online, who then pay the driver after taking a cut for arranging the job.

Explaining the service, Ms Bertram said: “Uber is a smartphone app that riders can use. They can download it, sign up and create a very simple profile.

“Once you have done that you are able to book a car at the touch of a button. When you get to the end it’s simple – you just get out and the payment is processed automatically.

“You get emailed your receipt, it shows the route you have taken so you can be confident the driver took the best route and at the end you are asked to rate your driver, so we get real time feedback on the driver.”

Why has it been controversial?

Uber operates in 55 countries and more than 200 cities, but has encountered controversy since it launched.

It was temporarily banned with other web-based taxi firms in Delhi, India, following allegations a driver working for the company raped a passenger, while parts of its service have also been subjected to bans in other countries over regulatory issues.

Taxi drivers have also staged protests in cities where Uber has launched, complaining of unfair business practices.

When news broke that Uber could be moving to Liverpool, Jimmy Bradley, spokesman for the Liverpool Taxi Alliance – which supports the city’s black cab and private hire drivers – said the city’s taxi market is already saturated and Liverpool-based firms who have built up their businesses over years will suffer because of Uber.

Is it safe?

Ms Bertram told the ECHO that safety is the company’s number one priority.

When passengers book an Uber taxi they are provided with the driver’s name, picture, registration and can track the vehicle’s progress to their destination. They are also able to share details of their journey, including estimated arrival time, with friends and family at the touch of a button. After the ride, their email receipt also details the route the driver so the customer can see if it was a reasonable journey.

Furthermore, Uber will be licensed by Liverpool council and Ms Bertram said: “The most important thing is around public safety. All of the drivers go through the same process as everyone else.

“We have extra checks on top… Uber drivers will have gone through exactly the same private hire licensing process as any other licensed car in the city, as well as our own checks.”

The firm also has monitoring systems to make sure the drivers are working efficiently and around the clock coverage in case there is an incident.

What can passengers expect?

How identifiable Uber’s private hire fleet are depends on the regulations of the licensing authority, and Uber are currently going through Liverpool’s licensing process.

But in many cities outside London Uber cars simply have stickers with Uber written on them to show they are working for the company.

Asked how many cars Uber would like to launch with in Liverpool, if it is given the go-ahead, Ms Bertram said: “We build it up slowly, having said that we have seen in all of the UK cities [we have launched in] enormous demand from the customers.”

She added drivers have already been contacting Uber ahead of its arrival in Liverpool and people across Merseyside have already downloaded the app. The company has not yet appointed its general manager for Liverpool though.

Asked why she believed Uber could succeed in Liverpool, Ms Bertram told the ECHO that customers could look forward to Uber’s arrival and said: “Safety is the number one priority. Secondly, in almost every city we offer more value for money than other alternatives because of the efficiency of our technology.”

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Carmarthenshire pupil transported to school for four months in unlicensed and uninsured car.

Posted by admin on February 13th, 2015

Source: Carmarthen Journal

A PRIVATE hire driver took a pupil to and from school in Ferryside in an unlicensed and uninsured vehicle for four months, Carmarthen magistrates have been told.

David Eurig Jones carried a young girl to Ferryside School between February and June in a private car after the minibus licensed for the schools contract was off the road for repairs.

Mr Jones, of Maes yr Eglwys, Llansaint, Kidwelly, was ordered to pay more than £1,000 in fines and costs after pleading guilty to offences of driving a private hire vehicle without a private hire licence, using a motor vehicle on the road without third party insurance, and being the owner of a vehicle, used it for private hire without the appropriate licence.

Andrew Rogers, prosecuting for Carmarthenshire Council, said that last year between February 4 and June 23, Mr Jones used a personal vehicle, a Renault Espace people carrier, which was not licensed as a private hire vehicle, and 77-year-old Mr Jones himself did not have the appropriate private hire licence for that vehicle.

He said: “During those three to four months he transported a young girl back and for to Ferryside School on a schools contract. Following a check by the Environment Department’s Passenger Trasnport Unit, he was questioned and invited in for an interview by the Council’s Licensing Section. He made no attempt to deny the offences.

“He was only insured for social, domestic and pleasure, business use was not covered. During that time he was driving the vehicle without proper insurance.”

Kate Williams, for Mr Jones, said he fully accepted the offences. The firm, D E & E Jones, had the contract legitimately to start with.

“The vehicle they were supposed to use was a minibus. It had to go in to be repaired and this took longer than anticipated. They used the people carrier instead. That invalidated the insurance and they fully accept that,” she said.

The firm had 40 years’ worth of work with the council and there hadn’t been any problems before that. The contract specified the minibus as the vehicle and the firm should have informed the council about the situation so the vehicle on the contract could be changed.

“It was his own vehicle, which was adequate for the job. There was no issue relating to the safety of the vehicle, simply that it was not registered with the council. If he had applied I’m sure it would have been approved,” she added.

Mr Jones, who did not attend court, was fined £400 for using a motor vehicle on the road without third party insurance, and his clean driving licence was endorsed with six points, he was fined £265 for using his own vehicle as a private hire vehicle, and no separate penalty was imposed for driving a private hire vehicle without a licence. He was also ordered to pay costs of £391.42 and a £40 victim surcharge.

Executive board member for Environmental and Public Protection, Cllr Jim Jones, said: “The safety of the travelling public is of paramount importance and routine checks on drivers and vehicles are carried out to ensure that relevant legal and licensing conditions are complied with.”

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Falsely-accused sex offender ‘hell’ of taxi driver.

Posted by admin on February 2nd, 2015

Source: BBC News

A taxi driver who was wrongly convicted of being a sex offender has spoken of his torment.

Mohammed Islam, 40, was convicted by Flintshire magistrates last October of sexually touching three young female passengers in north east Wales.

But his convictions have now been quashed after the prosecution accepted that the women were not in his taxi.

Mr Islam, of Chester, said he was relieved but was concerned the real guilty taxi driver was still at large. He had faced being jailed after he was convicted at the magistrates’ court and sent to crown court for sentencing.

The prosecution had said the taxi had stopped at a McDonalds at Sealand Road, Chester, as it took the three women – in their early 20s – to their respective homes in north east Wales in the early hours of 7 September, 2013.

A still image from the CCTV was produced which they said was Mr Islam’s taxi. But pending an appeal, he paid for his lawyers to engage an expert who was able to enhance the CCTV – and that proved it was not his taxi after all.

It was in fact a London style cab, not like his vehicle.

His lawyers also produced new cell site analyses which showed his phone was not at the scene of the crimes at the time. After the new evidence was obtained by his solicitors, the prosecution dropped the case.

They formally did not oppose his appeal against conviction at Mold Crown Court and in a three minute hearing his convictions were quashed by the judge, Mr Recorder Greg Bull QC.

Mr Islam, speaking after he was cleared, said the conviction was a terrible shock and had left him suffering from depression. The father of two told how his eldest son had dropped out of doing his A levels because of the stress of it all and he himself had been unable to continue working.

But he said he was also concerned that the real culprit was still driving a taxi. “I feel very sorry for those three girls,” he said. “I hope they get the person who did this.”

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Foreign taxi drivers face language test after passengers complain they can’t talk to them

Posted by admin on January 11th, 2015

Source: Sunday Express

The patter of taxi drivers is often seen as a one-sided affair as they regale passengers with tales of life behind the wheel.

But one group of them are now facing an L-test – that’s a language test – to ensure their English is up to scratch after customers complained they could not talk to them.

Bradford council bosses found that many of the city’s foreign drivers do not even speak enough English to have a moan – and customers miss it.

Attempts at conversations about the weather or questions like “Busy tonight?” are being greeted with a puzzled silence.

Taxi and minicab operators admit it has now become standard for people to ask for “English speaking” drivers.

Until now, drivers had little difficulty convincing licensing officers in the West Yorkshire city that they had mastered English as a second tongue.

The rules say they must show “a basic understanding of written and spoken English”. Reading a paragraph out of a paperback book and filling in a receipt was enough to get a licence.

But under plans set to be approved by councillors this week, would-be cabbies will sit a “conversation test” demanding far greater language skills.

They will have to understand a series of questions fired at them by a council worker.

Licensing manager Carol Stos said: “The current new driver process is that an applicant needs to read a paragraph from a book and complete a receipt for a perceived journey.

“A new procedure is proposed which requires an applicant to answer normal conversational questions.

They can include things such as, ‘What do you think of the weather recently?’, ‘Where did you take your last customer?’ and ‘How do you get from A to B?’”

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said he hoped Bradford’s lead would be followed by other towns and ­cities, including London.

He said: “Travelling by taxi is expensive and one of the ­compensations is a good chat and a good laugh.

“I have travelled in many cabs in London, with reputable ­companies employing ­ Romanian drivers who use ­sat-nav and are barely able to ­converse a word with me.

“Speaking the language is a high requirement for an ­integrated society.”

Senior figures within the taxi trade agreed with Mr Farage.

Wayne Casey, admin officer for the National Taxi Association insisted: “Being able to communicate with a passenger is important. It is common sense.”

And Khurram Shehzad, chairman of the Bradford Private Hire Liaison Service, added: “It is in the interests of the public.

“Some drivers may know how to drive – but when they have a customer in the car with them, they can’t have a conversation.”

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Facing up to the community transport challenge (are some Community Transport vehicles acting illegally?)

Posted by admin on December 15th, 2014

Source: Bus and Coach Professional

The community transport sector has become something of a political hot potato in recent months. A complaint to the European Commission about possible illegal state aid to CT operators from a group of independent bus and coach operators has led to the start of potential infraction proceedings against the UK government.

Tension between commercial operators and the voluntary sector has been simmering for some time and the issue is at last being debated more openly, although the search for a resolution continues.

The recent announcement by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin of a new £25million fund to support the purchase of new minibuses by community transport groups included an explicit recognition of the current row. In launching the fund, McLoughlin said: “Smaller operators and those who help out in rural areas will be favoured in the scheme. Each bidder will need to undertake that the vehicle will be used only for voluntary services and will not be used to compete for bus service contracts.”

The Community Transport Association has broken its period of relative silence on the challenge made to the sector concerning European state aid in its State of the Sector report published last month. The CTA document refers to “unfair and unwarranted attacks on community transport”, from a “small, but very aggressive and vocal, anti-CT lobby”. The protagonists in question are those behind the Bus and Coach Association which was launched in February 2014.

The Bus and Coach Association has responded to the CTA report in kind, dismissing it in a response co-authored by safety organisation BUSK which has a long history of campaigning on the issue of training and regulatory oversight of the voluntary sector, including the use of school teachers to drive minibuses. “A large number of community transport operations are as commercial as the commercial sector,” says the BCA/BUSK response, “bidding for paid contracts and winning them. This is not legal, neither is it safe as they do not have to comply with a high enough standard that the commercial operator is required to.

“Small operators are right to object to the voluntary sector bidding and winning contracts for work that should legally be only for the commercial operator. So yes, they are concerned about community transport taking their work.”

The nub of the issue is the operation under Section 19 and Section 22 permits by community transport groups. The CTA report claims that there are around 500 Section 22 permits for local bus service registrations operated by about 200 different organisations. It points out however that Section 19 permits, which involve carrying members of a local organisation or those it specifically caters for, rather than the general public, account for 83.6 per cent of permit operations by CT groups, while 2.2 per cent operate under a full PCV O licence.

The distinction between ‘voluntary sector’ and commercial is important, since operating under permit rules enables the CT groups to avoid the need to comply with regulations including drivers’ hours, Driver CPC and vehicle checks. BUSK reports that the department for transport was unable to supply it with evidence of the records of monitoring or checks on the voluntary sector.

The Bus and Coach Association was set up by a small group of operators who appear to have been driven partly by frustration that the issue was not being addressed by the industry’s main trade body CPT. The BCA has adopted a very robust approach to the CT sector which may not win it many friends, but its persistence has undoubtedly awakened interest at the European level in the state aid issue.

The government’s guidance document on its new £25million CT fund includes the warning: “We expect bidders to ensure that they are compliant with European rules on State Aid funding.”

European intervention is also possible on the application of Driver CPC requirements and the rules on financial standing and drivers’ hours. In its State of the Sector report, the CTA depicts this as an existential threat: “Put simply, this would mean having to accept an EU definition of ‘commercial’ which means that community transport organisations delivering public sector contracts are engaged in commercial activity and will have to do so under an ‘O’ licence.

“If enacted, this could be a massive blow for all types of operators, not just those delivering public sector contracts using section 19 permits. Some would say a line can be drawn between those operators who would need to comply (those wishing to deliver public sector contracts) and those who could continue to work under the current derogations (everyone else). It is doubtful whether such a line can be drawn.”

The CTA claims that funders might be frightened off providing any further grants to the sector for fear of falling foul of state aid rules, even if such awards might not be in contravention of the rules.

The government appears to be in no mood to see the community transport sector’s work diminished however. The DVSA has issued guidance which states that: “Drivers who hold a category D1 (101) on their licence are exempt from driver CPC when driving a vehicle being used under a section 19 or 22 permit. There is an exemption from driver CPC requirements where the vehicle is being used for the non-commercial carriage of passengers.”

The DVSA points out that while it is the view of DVSA and the Department for Transport that a vehicle used under a section 19 or section 22 permit is being used for the non-commercial carriage of passengers, “the interpretation of the law remains the sole prerogative of the courts”.

In its guidance for bidders for the new minibus fund, the DfT states: “Commercial operators often struggle to run passenger transport services in communities where demand is thin or diffuse. Community transport can play an important role in providing services in these circumstances.”

The question of whether community transport services are restricted to such gap-filling is of course the main bone of contention.

The relationship between the BCA and CPT could at best be described as distant. A BCA member resorted to a Freedom of Information request to get confirmation of a meeting attended by CPT amongst others at the DfT in September 2014. The formal response to the FOI request confirmed that a meeting was attended by CPT, Community Transport Association, Office of the Traffic Commissioner, Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, Transport for London, DOE Northern Ireland, Association of Transport Coordinating Officers and DfT officials. An “oral overview of various domestic and European legislation” was given to the attendees by barrister Alan Bates. Conspiracy theorists will be energised by the fact that the DfT claims that no formal minutes were made of the meeting, although it is inconceivable that some form of written record is not buried somewhere within the department.

For its part, CPT prefers to project a more statesmanlike approach to the subject. It is certainly not unaware of the concerns among commercial operators about losing contracts to voluntary groups who may be backed by public funding, and issued a request earlier this year asking its members to advise it of cases where they are “losing business to a community transport operator”. CPT claimed credit for pressuring the DfT to update its tendering advice to local authorities, which now states: “It is potentially distorting competition for the authority to grant aid to a community transport scheme and then to allow, or indeed to expect, the scheme to bid competitively to undertake contract work for the authority using grant-aided resources.”

In a letter to CPT members, president Chris Owens spelt out the trade body’s approach: “As I am sure you appreciate, this is a very difficult policy area to address. No politician wishes to be seen to do something which could be portrayed as having a damaging effect on the community sector no matter what the issue. This therefore is one of those cases where a loud ‘tub thumping’ campaign would not be appropriate and could well make things worse rather than better.”

Owens acknowledged that the problems surrounding Section 19 permits have not gone away and “continue to cause problems to many of our operators – in some cases threatening their very existence”.

CPT says its appeal for information from members follows a case it is pursuing on behalf of a member whose business has been affected by the award of a lottery grant to a community operator. The organisation in question used a “lack of local bus services” to justify a grant for a luxury 16-seater that it uses to compete with genuine PSV operators.

Owens is right to highlight the protected status of the voluntary sector, always something of a sacred cow to politicians, and with good reason. It is not sensible for commercial operators to be seen as attacking the voluntary sector which is often working with some of the most vulnerable members of the community. But it is entirely legitimate for a professional operator to cry foul if they suffer unfair competition for contracts from organisations that receive grant aid which is designed to assist them to carry out their core purpose rather than help them get involved in work that is already covered by commercial businesses. It is also not something which is restricted to transport; many small retailers make similar complaints about charity shops mushrooming in high streets, assisted by exemption from business rates and other taxes.

In addressing the state aid issue so publicly, CTA has acknowledged how seriously it is taking the matter and leads one to conclude that it believes that the sector has been benefiting from state aid in a way that may not satisfy an in-depth investigation by European authorities.

CTA is calling for what it terms a “new settlement” for community transport and is seeking support across the political spectrum for its approach. “We must continue to defend the use of section 19 permits in delivering public sector contracts and build a wider coalition of support for defending community transport in the UK.”

From the commercial operator’s standpoint however the issue is simple. There are two types of organisation providing similar services, yet one has to abide by a raft of rules and regulations designed ultimately to protect the safety of passengers, and the other doesn’t, even though both are carrying fare-paying passengers.

It might be seen as a circle that can’t be squared, but it is also an issue that can no longer be ignored; putting our collective heads in the sand is no longer an option.

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North Eastern Traffic Commissioner v Wasteney

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