Friday evening 15 December 2017 in Nottingham city centre
Nottingham's licensing boss says it is "a game of cat and mouse" to catch them in the act. Richard Antcliff, chief for licensing at Nottingham City Council, says a 'cohort' of around 200 drivers use social media messenger service Whatsapp to keep the council off their tail. If an illegal driver spots a council or police officer then a message is pinged out to avoid that area so they aren't caught and prosecuted.
In just over one hour, 15 drivers were caught picking up customers illegally. One left his vehicle outside a bus stop to issue a tirade of abuse, and another sped off before his details could be taken. The 15 caught are now going through the system but face possible penalties including a fine or losing their badge. The council’s licensing team are targeting drivers who obtain private hire licences from other councils and then 'tout' for business - also known as ‘plying for hire’ - on the streets of Nottingham.
The majority of the 15 caught on Friday evening had their licences issued in Gedling. Private hire drivers from Gedling can drop off in the city, but the problems arise when they then try to pick up passengers. Under legislation, private hire vehicles may only pick up passengers when pre-booked, rather than from a rank or being hailed down like a city hackney cab. However, Mr Antcliffe says around 200 taxi drivers are regularly breaking the law.
Other offences committed by illegal drivers include not setting the meter, charging high prices. Mr Antcliff says that illegal taxi drivers are putting the public at risk – with a small minority using their cover to commit serious crimes. He said in the last six months the city has got "out of control" and more enforcement work is needed to ensure that illegal taxis are driven out of Nottingham.
The council currently runs one operation a month, but has a team of two on the streets each night. Around 40 drivers have been caught so far this year and prosecuted - but Mr Antcliff says this is just the "tip of the iceberg" if they had more resources.He says that in the last two years, eight taxi drivers plying for hire have committed serious offences including rape, sexual touching, conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs, grievous bodily harm and indecent exposure. They have all lost their taxi badges. He continued:
"It is all money-related, and on occasion more sinister. It is cash in hand, the operator is not taking a percentage and there is no meter. The criminal cases we have seen are just the people who have come forward, but there will be other victims who have been ripped off on the meter, been a victim of sexual innuendo or experienced more sinister acts from drivers. That is why it is important that customers use pre-booked cabs or a green hackney taxi. We have really started to clamp down in the last six months, for a number of reasons. The city has got out of control in regards to taxis, we have seen some nasty offences committed.
It is unfair for legitimate drivers to have their work stolen under their noses by those who are illegally flying around the city. We are also concerned about public safety. If you are a single female, use a hackney or pre-book a private hire. If you just jump into any cab there is no record of that journey and you risk the chance of becoming a victim because you just don’t know if it is legitimate.
Eighty-five percent of drivers are legitimate and doing pre-booked jobs but there is a cohort – 200 on one given night. They are all individually out for themselves but they know each other and they help each other out. It is a hustle and their way of communicating is through Whatsapp. They say 'police and council are out' or they will say 'we have seen the taxi CPOs (community protection officers) out on Milton Street', and they go to the other side of the city. "It is a game of cat and mouse but we are getting smarter. We are using the eye in the sky – we are using the CCTV cameras across the city."
Sean Cochrane is one of the community protection officers whose job is to stop illegal taxi drivers. He said: "People want to get home but they do not realise the consequences. We are seeing in excess of a hundred. We won't catch everyone but we will deter it. We are concerned about safety."
During Friday's operation, drivers were asked why they flouted the law, but often denied any knowledge of wrongdoing. Despite one driver accepting a £20 offer to Kimberley, once rumbled he told the Nottingham Post he would never have taken us and had only stopped to buy chips.
Councillor Toby Neal, the portfolio holder for community and customer service, has stressed the importance of keeping people safe. He said:
"It is coming up to one of the most busy times of the year and everyone wants to go out and have fun which is great, but our main concern is keeping people safe and if they are getting into unregulated taxi's then they are putting themselves at risk. "Private hire taxis by law should be pre-booked and if you get into one without pre-booking you are at risk. We can't trace them, you don't know who they are and you won't be covered by insurance."
Sam Rycroft, 30, of Bulwell, was one customer who was about to take an illegal taxi. on Friday night. He said: "I have had a couple of taxi drivers ask for £20 deposit or my mobile phone as deposit. It is bad for illegal taxis in the city. All I want to do is get home safe after a night out."
Amy Upson, 24, of Essex, who was about to get into an illegal taxi, told the Nottingham Post: "I went up to him and said it would be £10 to the Premier Inn. I feel really bad. The fact he stopped in the middle of the street indicated to me he was legitimate."
Rachel Hustwayte, 38, of Wollaton, was queuing at the hackney taxi rank, which was manned by Marshalls. She said: "We are queuing for a hackney in the hope we get a safe and legitimate ride home. You hope they will charge the correct fare rather than make one up."
Source Nottingham Post- all rights acknowledged