TAXI companies could face tougher licensing regimes in an effort to tackle child sexual exploitation in places like Rotherham, a transport minister has suggested.
John Hayes said current regulations were “being gamed”, amid concerns that taxis which fail to obtain licences in places with tighter controls are still able to get one elsewhere and return.
“I think where a local authority tightens sometimes neighbouring local authorities adopt a more permissive regime”, Mr Hayes told MPs at transport questions this morning.
“I want to introduce new guidance and I want greater consistency in the way that the licences are issued.
“This has to be about public safety, security and well-being. We really do have to take action.”
The Rotherham abuse scandal, uncovered in 2012 by The Times newspaper, revealed decades of systematic sexual abuse of children by gangs, with taxis being used to transport victims.
Current regulations for taxis and private hire vehicles dictate that drivers must be “fit and proper persons”, meaning that background checks are undertaken and councils can carry out DBS checks on applicants.
Mr Hayes’ comments came after concerns were raised by Labour’s Clive Betts, chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, and shadow minister Cat Smith.
Mr Betts said: “When the CLG Select Committee looked at child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, one of the issues was the involvement of taxis.
“The Government’s own commissioners brought in higher standards. Those rules, however, can be undermined.
Mr Hayes replied: “I think there’s a case for new statutory guidance and, whilst I don’t want to second-guess the working party and its recommendations that it may make to me, I think we’ll issue some new statutory guidance early next year.”
Ms Smith raised a similar point during the parliamentary session and argued that the government had refused to close loopholes, “despite repeated calls for the reform of legislation, including from the Law Commission”.
She urged the government to “commit to introducing a national standard, to ensure safety across the industry”.
Rotherham MP Sarah Champion echoed the calls and criticised the government for deregulating the taxi industry.
She told The Yorkshire Post: “The day the Tory Government deregulated taxi licensing, exploiting the system became open season. If we want to feel safe and secure in a taxi anywhere in the country, we must return to national standards.
“Rotherham Council learnt from its failings and brought in some of the toughest taxi licensing in the country, yet they can do nothing against a taxi from out of the area with lower standards.
“Deregulation means responsible drivers are being under cut by cowboys, and passengers are playing a dangerous lottery game.”
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council’s Licensing Board Chair, councillor Sue Ellis, welcomed the transport minister’s comments, adding: “Current national regulations mean we cannot prevent Private Hire Drivers licensed elsewhere working in Rotherham, but we continue to take every opportunity to lobby Government for stronger national standards.
“We advise residents to book a taxi with a Rotherham company and specifically request that they are sent a Rotherham vehicle, so they can be assured both the company, driver and vehicle meets the high standards set out in our new policy.”