Licensed Transport Uncovered calls for a Humpherson academy to tackle illegal touts and to educate police around the country
The private hire and hackney trade may have their differences. It could be fair to say that their approach can be fragmented and divided when resolving issues that affect the trade. The two exceptions to this rule are current campaigns against Uber and the serious concerns of a lack of enforcement across the UK, against illegal operators, vehicles and drivers.
Safety unites the trade no matter whether you are a taxi driver, private hire driver, chauffeur or limousine owner. These individuals and operators spend vast sums of money complying with the licensing laws and have a genuine gripe that others can operate illegally with little to no chance of ever being caught.
During a chat with Donna Short at The National Private Hire Association (NPHA) about an ongoing case, we spoke about the trades concerns about the lack of enforcement. The NPHA said: “it will take a death before the powers-that-be start to take the concerns of the industry seriously”. This was backed up by Bill Bowling of the National Limousine and Chauffeur Association (NLCA) who agreed with the NPHA, and that the industry was waiting for a tragedy.
Whilst talking about enforcement Donna then asked me if I had heard of Robocop? I’d seen the film, but I didn’t understand why a half-man, half-machine had suddenly been thrown into our conversation. In fact Donna didn’t mean the famous sci-fi character, but the taxi-cop in Birmingham. I was told that PC David Humpherson was making a real difference to the trade across the Midlands and was becoming an enforcement hero within the trade.
Over a coffee with the Secret Squirrel, head of Licensed Transport Uncovered (LTU) Investigations and Intelligence we spoke at length about how Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police partnership was a stroke of genius. The principle was simple. Licensing officers do not have the powers to stop vehicles and also cannot have immediate access to certain records, such as insurance which is only available to police officers. Having a dedicated police officer who has the powers to stop and check vehicles and drivers, but most importantly knows the law in relation to private hire and taxi legislation is a powerful tool in the armour of Birmingham City Councils licensing unit.
What immediately struck us when we found the Twitter feed of PC Humpherson (@BhamTaxiCop) was that there was more behind this than just a copper doing a job. To find out more about the role and the man behind it we decided to contact West Midlands Police press office to arrange an interview with PC Humpherson.
On a cold Wednesday in December 2014, we had the pleasure of finally meeting up with PC Humpherson at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the NEC, Birmingham. Over a pot of tea we chatted about his background and how he ended up in his current role. PC Humpherson has been an officer with West Midlands Police Force for 17 years, with a background in general policing, traffic and counter terrorism. During 2013, a vacancy became available at Birmingham City Council for an advanced police motorcyclist, qualified in traffic policing who had a City and Guilds vehicle examination with PG9 authority. The role would mean the candidate being seconded to Birmingham City Council’s to work with the council’s taxi and private hire licensing and enforcement unit.
PC Humpherson applied for the position, and as they say the rest is history. During the week you can see him patrolling Birmingham and its Airport on his BMW RT1200 on the lookout for vehicles illegally plying for hire and taxi / private hire vehicles and drivers breaching licensing conditions and working with multi-agencies on operations. His role is predominantly as a police officer, but his joint skills, unique knowledge of the trade and liaison with Birmingham and Solihull Councils enables him to add additional benefits to the councils when working on keeping the trade and the public safe.
But there is something else about PC Humpherson that stands out. Some may argue that any officer could walk into Humpherson’s job, but I would strongly disagree. To be able to do his job well and to have already earned the respect of the industry not only in the West Midlands, but across the UK, has not happened by accident. It was clear to the Secret Squirrel and I that Humpherson has a passion for what he does and takes his job very seriously.
He is a regular Twitter user and always says hello to new followers. The tweets directed his way include requests for him to show other parts of the UK how it should be done. Even on his days off he can be found tweeting followers or answering requests from other councils or police forces around the UK for help and advice. Here is a man who takes dedication to a new level in the world of taxi and private hire enforcement. This approachability, openness and along with his expertise on the licensing legislation make him a highly respected officer.
Chris Neville, Head of Licensing for Birmingham City Council, said in a statement to LTU: “PC Humpherson has been extremely effective and has helped us to forge a much closer working relationship with West Midlands Police as we enforce legislation and regulations.
“A number of other local authorities have shown an interest in PC Humpherson’s work here in Birmingham and are looking at introducing similar roles.”
Mr Neville concluded: “He’s very motivated and I have no doubt that, thanks to his innovative work, the people of Birmingham are a lot safer when it comes to taxis and private hire vehicles.
We spoke at length about the problems in Birmingham which included illegally plying for hire, touts, out of town hackneys, illegal drivers and vehicles that are in desperate need of an industrial valet on the interior. PC Humpherson spoke about the working relationship between Birmingham Council and West Midlands Police. Humpherson explained that operations such as Amethyst (Plying) and Operation Peach (Touting), supported by around thirty special constables have been helping keep the public safe in Birmingham for the last ten years. Since taking on the role PC Humpherson has had a 100% success rate with prosecutions after he has caught somebody up to no good.
Thanks to changes in section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) which came into force on 12 March 2015, caps on fines for licensing offences have been scrapped. The relevant parts of LAPSO s. 85 provide for all fines made in the magistrates’ courts of £5,000 or more to become unlimited, meaning that magistrates will be able to impose more significant penalties than previously. These changes have led to one operator in April being fined £9,000, in the West Midlands. This must send a clear message out to illegal operators and drivers breaking licensing laws that not only do you face penalty points for no insurance, but also you will now be hit hard in the pocket. With a Humpherson about, a council who takes licensing infringement seriously and a police force supporting the partnership your chances of slipping under the radar are very slim to zero.
We then moved on and spoke about the concerns LTU had about potential criminality within the trade and how one of the many government agencies we had spoken to prior to our interview had said that the industry was a target for criminals wanting to take advantage of the trade. It concerns me greatly that police in general just don’t understand the trade or the risks that could be associated with it. However, I appreciate that police forces have priorities and financial restraints, but this shouldn’t be an excuse for looking the other way or filing it in the ‘too difficult to do’ drawer.
Taking a proactive approach can only be a positive thing, and by sharing intelligence and knowing where to look for the warning signs can help clean up an industry. Now I am not saying that every taxi driver, private hire, chauffeur or limousine driver is involved in crime, but at the same time there are plenty within the trade who know full well who is allegedly up to criminal activities.
The cost of employing a “Humpherson” is approximately £40,000 per annum, including his motorbike and this is paid for by Birmingham Council. I appreciate that for smaller councils that this cost would have financial implications, especially as this cost cannot be passed on in extra fees as the law does not allow enforcement costs to be added to licensing costs. But if councils came together and worked together for the greater good then this cost could be shared by multiple councils, lowering the costs per council to around £4-5,000 per year. And let’s not forget; the police, other agencies and third parties with a vested interest could help fund these dedicated officers.
On our drive back to Manchester the Squirrel and I had a debate as to how we could help push this idea and get more Humpherson’s across the UK. The Secret Squirrel came up with an idea and his suggestion was: ‘why don’t we gather support to setup a Humpherson Academy?’ The reasoning it should be setup in his honour is because it is not just the role, but the man himself who is making the difference and this is supported by the fact requests are now coming from abroad now.
If other police forces across the UK took a lead from Humpherson’s approach we stand a chance of the whole package being passed on, because for it to work other officers have to be as approachable as him as well as having a passion for the role. Any potential officer would have to be willing to study the law and have a leaning to want to do the job.
We should be pushing now for councils to join forces in preparation for the deregulation bill being made law with cross border hire and subcontracting. The cross bordering element will create enforcement problems and if we had officers working together across those borders with the support of local authorities we have a chance of helping clean up the industry.
We share PC Dave Humphersons passion and we would like to help get this idea off the ground. Hopefully operators, drivers and the trade at whole would like to share their views and offer their support to get a ‘Humpherson’ in every major city in the UK.
But for those in Birmingham, don’t forget there is already a Humpherson about….