A NEW Yorkshire wide cross-council task force is being created to police the taxi and private hire trade, with a regional database of drivers helping clamp down on rogue elements.
It follows the recent opening up of the trade through national deregulation, which has led to increased concerns about tightening up of safety issues, especially in relation to those at risk of sexual grooming and trafficking in the wake of the Rotherham child abuse scandal.
Following changes in the law, firms can now make bookings outside of their own city - even though only the area they are licensed in has enforcement and monitoring powers over drivers.
But council bosses hope the new cross-border agreement - and a region-wide database of drivers - will add to their armoury of enforcement powers.
A panel of senior Leeds councillors yesterday rubberstamped their part of the new agreement, and other authorities are expected to follow suit soon.
The pledge means the five West Yorkshire councils, along with York, will work together to police the taxi and private hire trade, with an emphasis on safeguarding issues; improved common minimum standards in English language skills and maintaining a centralised record of licence applications, suspensions and revocations.
A report to the panel explains: “These concerns are shared across many leading authorities but the effects are more likely to be significant in areas such as Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and other large cities.”
A spokesman for Leeds City Council said: “The safety of residents and visitors is always our primary concern and we have been working for some time alongside other authorities in the West Yorkshire Combined Authority area to establish a series of common licensing standards that will mitigate any potential impact of the new deregulation rules.
“That work will include a scheme of shared delegated powers across all West Yorkshire authorities and York to enable Licensing and Enforcement Officers to carry out inspections and suspension powers on vehicles licensed by any of those authorities.
“It will also include further work on introducing common safeguarding including training on child sexual exploitation and human trafficking and adopting a standard convictions policy and convictions criteria. These are already in place in Leeds, where training on CSE has already begun and more than 1,100 drivers have taken part this year.
“By working together and sharing expertise in this way, we can help to ensure those using taxis and private hire vehicles in Leeds can continue to enjoy a safe and reliable service.
“The intention is for all authorities to have these measures in in place as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile union representatives have expressed concerns about how the new agreement will play out in terms of enforcement on the ground.
Javaid Akhtar, spokesman for the Leeds Private Hire Association, a branch of the GMB union, said the safety of customers was paramount to the majority of very professional and dedicated drivers in Leeds.
However he added: “We hope to see an increase in enforcement officers.
“We don’t seem to have enough enforcement officers for our own drivers - how will we deal with people from outside the region? I am very concerned for the public.”
Officials from the Unite union’s Leeds hackney carriage section were due to meet Leeds City Council licensing officers today to give their response to the new agreement.
Leeds City Council has 4,993 licensed private hire drivers and 987 licensed hackney carriage drivers as of December 3.