Monday, April 23, 2012

The Reiver: Addyleaks or smoke and mirrors?

A few months ago (December 2011) a nice chap from Birmingham requested from the Department for Transport (DfT) a few documents under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The DfT duly obliged, sending at the end of January a few pages of documents, they also added a note, certain documents couldn’t be sent and surprisingly the majority of meetings they held didn’t actually have any notes.

What the DfT did release was quite revealing, for example, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) wanted pressure exerted on local authorities to lower taxi fares. Of course, Casey wrote about this, but in fairness to him, he’s a little more concerned about the law commission, because they’re the people that have been sent to kill us.

The Addison Lee meeting notes of 13th October 2011 were similarly included, they were sent out to NTA members and published on the internet amongst all the others, no big shakes at the time, and most people seemed to have forgotten about the documents. Until the middle of April, a couple of weeks before the local elections and hours after Addison Lee had sent an email to their drivers advising them to ignore the private-hire bus lane ban in the Capital, the company would foot any fines and they were also going to challenge the prohibition by way of Judicial Review.

Within a few hours the DfT meeting notes surfaced, claims were made that Addison Lee, through John Griffin, were working in cahoots with the Tory party, cash for meetings rumours on twitter and other media emerged, the electoral commissions website was searched for proof of Addison Lee donations to the Conservative Party and some £254,045.58p was found to have been given between December 2008 and September 2011. Okay, that’s a lot of money – but it isn’t Premier League (to quote that Tory gobsh*te).

The Labour Party through Maria Eagle MP sent a letter to Baroness Warsi with the following questions;

On what dates did John Griffin attend events at Number 10 and at David Cameron’s home?
Who else was present at these events?
Were civil servants present, and if so what discussions were minuted?
Who met the cost of these events – the Government, the Conservative Party or the Prime Minister himself?

Why was John Griffin not included on the lists of Conservative donors who have visited 10 Downing Street or Chequers published by the Conservative Party on 26 March?
Given that it appears that the lists published by the Conservative Party were incomplete, will the Conservatives now publish a full list?

Of course, the letter included the obligatory doctrine of ignorance, in calling Addison Lee a ‘taxi’ firm when they most certainly are not, as we wrote last month, the doctrine is par for the course with ignorant MP’s who don’t particularly care.

We were reminded in both the Daily Mirror and Guardian newspapers that Addison Lee vehicles flouted the M4 bus lane restriction on over 200 occasions before the CPS dropped the prosecutions in October 2010, the government had by then closed the M4 bus lane.

Addison Lee and John Griffin were summarily kicked about like a political football, the company further revealed it had similarly met with Maria Eagle, Louise Ellman (Labour chair of the commons transport select committee), and Caroline Pigeon (Liberal Democrat chairwoman of the Greater London Authority).

The cynic in me tends to suggest this whole story is being blown up due to the forthcoming May elections, cab drivers in London will play a part in the election of London’s new mayor and it would appear the taxi trade is being used as a stick to beat the government (and Boris) over the head with. It goes without saying Addison Lee’s donation to the Conservative Party has rankled both the Labour Party and Licensed Cab Trade. In fairness to Addison Lee, the donations were declared to the electoral commission, and the meeting they held with the transport secretary was one of the few where meeting notes were taken and subsequently released.

In terms of cash given to political parties, Griffin’s £250K over 3 years is dwarfed in comparison to Unite the Union, who have met all manner of politicians well before Griffin even started giving his money in 2008. April, May and June of 2011 saw Unite alone contribute £765,628 to the Labour Party.

I don’t think any political party gives a tu’penny toss about the cab trade and the feigned interest they offer is more an insult than a compliment. If they were interested why did they release the wolves in the guise of the OFT and Law Commission?

Whilst the leftward leaning elements of the national press can muckrake about John Griffin and the Tory party, perhaps they should take a peek at the number of meetings with DfT officials where no notes were taken, because there were considerably more. Am I alone in thinking that out of 97 meetings between 9th October 2009 and 31st December 2010 – 15 documents were released, with 2 further documents being deemed as too sensitive to release, it means the DfT didn’t even bother taking a note about what they’d either said to people or even had for lunch on 80 occasions?

Amongst the meetings where no notes were taken were meeting with Unite the Union, the RMT, the NTA, NALEO, the IOL, GoSkills, the LPHCA and a few more. Of course, expecting DfT officials to keep notes about why they had meetings maybe too much of a task, certainly some of the meetings they attend had minutes taken by the host organisations. Maybe if the cab trade and private hire trade are to continue to meet with the DfT then this needs to change.

Whilst I write the above, let’s not forget what started this thing, the initial letter sent to Addison Lee drivers by Addison Lee management, encouraging drivers to break the law. Is this the action of a fit and proper company? I leave the answer to TfL, although I’d be extremely surprised if any action was actually taken, the too big to fail philosophy does seem to apply to larger companies, whereas if it were a company with 10 – 20 minicabs, I very much wonder if the same rules would be applied.

The calls for the operator license to be revoked are in the foolish belief the company will cease to operate. It may well be that London, similar to the rest of the country has a massive loophole in legislation, ironically, the loophole would also appear be in the new Northern Ireland (Taxis) act. So much for the cry of “there is no substitute for modern legislation”. This is why the operator licensing system has developed into a sad joke. Lee Harvey Oswald famously declared himself a ‘patsy’ after assassinating John Fitzgerald Kennedy, he meant he was a guy taking a fall for others. There have been numerous instances of ‘patsies’ being put on private hire operators licenses over the years, the outcome is the company still runs and the people truly running them are not on the license.

In law I would suggest Addison Lee would very probably have a ‘Vicarious Liability’. In any accident their vehicle were to be involved involved in, whilst in a bus lane, with the tacit encouragement of the company they would perhaps have to face a responsibility. The question is, which one of you is going to test the theory out!

The Health and Safety executive cite in one of their documents, and considering the shenanigans it is particularly apt;
“Is there top-level commitment to work-related road safety in your organisation and is responsibility clearly defined? Does the person who is responsible for it have sufficient authority to exert influence and does everyone understand what is expected of them?”

Obviously the above statement from the HSE and the statement from Addison Lee are a tad contradictory and it leaves me wondering what else is in their safety at work policy.

The taxi trade across the country should additionally be aware that access to bus lanes has been much in discussion in various private-hire circles; a solicitors opinion has been sought (by private-hire) and its available on various internet trade forums. The fact the opinion emerged in Manchester, when it was so obviously intended for London merely adds to fuel the flames of a turgid conspiracy amongst private-hire operators. It could well be that what some in the private-hire trade are doing is more in the interests of getting taxis removed from bus lanes, than to get private-hire inclusion.

I do overall have a fear that all of this is a minor distraction, whilst people are busy pointing fingers (and rightly so) at Addison Lee, we’re about to face the biggest change in taxi law in 160 years, courtesy of the law commission.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Calls for government to close Addison Lee accounts after firm owned by Tory donor encourages drivers to break the law

Government ministers are continuing to use a luxury minicab firm owned by a major Tory donor that has instructed its drivers to break the law by driving in London's bus lanes.

Whitehall officials have confirmed that accounts held with Addison Lee will remain active despite transport chiefs in the capital branding the private hire company's campaign of disobedience "utterly irresponsible".

The firm, chaired by John Griffin, has donated £250,000 to the Conservative party and Griffin personally lobbied Philip Hammond, the former secretary of state for transport, to allow his cars in bus lanes.

As cycling groups warned the tactic could increse the risk of collisions, Transport for London reported on Tuesday that it had started catching some Addison Lee cars breaking the bus lane law. A spokesman for Addison Lee said the firm expected to receive "hundreds if not thousands of tickets by the end of the week".

Ministers and officials in the Treasury and Foreign Office as well as the departments for education, work and pensions and business use Addison Lee for official business. Children's minister Tim Loughton spent £3,610 on the private hire cars between May 2010 and the end of last year, while schools minister Lord Hill spent more than £2,000 over the same period, according to House of Commons records.

"It is completely unacceptable for ministers to be using a company that has said it is willing to break the law by instructing its drivers to use bus lanes, which puts the safety of other road users, especially cyclists, at risk," said shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle.

"Ministers must immediately explain why they still use this company who have shown a flagrant disregard for other road users in making this announcement."

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office confirmed the accounts remained in use, but said: "We expect all private hire vehicles in London to adhere to the prohibition on using bus lanes." A Treasury spokesman repeated the line, but said it had made no changes to the status of its account with the company. One Whitehall source indicated the government is concerned about Addison Lee's stance and departments are keeping its law breaking campaign under review.

Addison Lee, which has 3,500 vehicles in London, told its drivers in a letter on Monday: "The current bus lane regulations which allow London's black cabs to use the bus lanes but prohibit private hire from doing so is illegal as it discriminates against … drivers who offer a competing taxi service."

Griffin wrote: "You are fully entitled to use the bus lanes" and promised to "indemnify all Addison Lee drivers from any fines or other liabilities that may result from using the bus lanes".
"The letter from the management of Addison Lee is utterly irresponsible," said Leon Daniels, managing director of Surface Transport. "By issuing it, Addison Lee risk regulatory action against themselves and leave their staff liable to criminal prosecution. We have asked Addison Lee to withdraw their letter immediately. We are also writing to all Addison Lee drivers reminding them that repeated breaches of traffic regulations could see their licence to operate withdrawn."

Mike Cavenett, spokesman for the London Cycling Campaign, said bus lanes are seen as a safe haven for cyclists and that heavier traffic flows are associated with more crashes.
In a separate move that further revealed Addison Lee's active lobbying operation at Westminster, the company released a list of 15 politicians from the three main parties who have met Griffin in the last 12 months. They included Eagle, Louise Ellman, the Labour chair of the commons transport select committee, and Caroline Pigeon, the Liberal Democrat chairwoman of the Greater London Authority transport committee.

Griffin also moved to deny any suggestion that his company was involved in tax avoidance. Minutes of his meeting with Hammond last October emerged on Monday showing the company's tax affairs were discussed, with Griffin pointing out that an arrangement which means most of the drivers are self-employed had been agreed by HM Revenue and Customs.
"The drivers who provide their services to Addison Lee are all self-employed and as a result are individually responsible for their own tax and National Insurance arrangements," Griffin said on Tuesday. "Addison Lee has no tax avoidance arrangements, nor does it have any kind of relationship with HMRC beyond that of any normal company. "Two separate companies work with the drivers to provide a service: Eventech Ltd owns all vehicle assets and the drivers hire, if they so chose, their vehicles from Eventech. Addison Lee PLC is a trading company that handles the provision of minicab services to customers and corporate clients and utilises the services of the drivers to carry out these assignments."


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

TfL seeks High Court injuction against Addison Lee in bus lane row

Judges asked to order withdrawal of letter telling firm's drivers to break law by using bus lanes

Transport for London has applied for a High Court injunction ordering minicab firm Addison Lee to withdraw a letter sent out to its drivers at the weekend in which it instructed its drivers to break the law by driving in bus lanes.

The business, which operates more than 3,500 private hire cars in London, has applied for a judicial review of regulations which permit licensed taxi cabs to use the capital’s bus lanes, but prevent minicabs, or private hire vehicles, from doing likewise, claiming that the rules are anti-competitive.

As reported here on earlier this week, the letter from the firm’s chairman, John Griffin, provoked an angry response from Transport for London (TfL) which, among other things, warned Addison Lee and its drivers, who largely work on a self-employed basis, that they faced having their licences revoked if they persistently broke the law.

BBC News reports that TfL has now sought a High Court injunction to order the letter sent out by Mr Griffin to be withdrawn, with its director of surface transport, Leon Daniels, saying: "We have applied to the High Court for an interim injunction that will require Addison Lee to withdraw the letter it sent to its drivers on 14 April advising them to drive in bus lanes and telling them they were indemnified against any fine or liability incurred.

"The case will be heard on Monday 23 April."
Cyclists, of course, are also allowed to use bus lanes and on Monday, London Cycling Campaign (LCC) not only criticised Addison Lee’s move but also encouraged TfL to follow the example of the City of London, which governs the historic Square Mile in the heart of the capital, to also ban licensed taxi cabs from bus lanes, as well as reconsidering its decision to let motorcycles use them.

"It's a measure of the poor quality of cycling provision in the capital that many cyclists see the bus lane network as a safe haven, even though it's shared with buses, black taxis and motorcycles,” explained LCC’s Mike Cavenett.

"Adding tens of thousands of extra motor vehicles to bus lanes will severely disadvantage bus passengers and cyclists.

"We urge Transport for London to look at the City of London, where both black taxis and private hire vehicles are banned from bus lanes, and to repeal its harmful motorbikes in bus lanes measure," he added.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tories hit by new cash-for-access row over taxi contract

DAVID Cameron was hit by a new cash-for-access row last night over revelations a major Tory donor held talks about lucrative Government work with a Cabinet minister.

Taxi tycoon John Griffin, a star of TV’s Secret Millionaire who has given the party more than £250,000, used a lobbyist to set up the meeting with Philip Hammond when he was Transport Secretary.

The Addison Lee chief’s visit to the Department of Transport came less than a month after he gave the party two £50,000 donations on a single day, Electoral Commission records show.

Mr Griffin, whose London firm has a £170million annual turnover, discussed cutting the Government’s ministerial car service with Mr Hammond and employing firms like his own instead. He also talked about transport during the Olympics.

Last night the donor said he had also been to parties hosted by the Prime Minister at Downing Street and at Mr Cameron’s own home, where the PM’s wife Sam and the couple’s children were also present.

The visits to No10 were not revealed in the lists of wealthy backers entertained there, which aides were forced to produce after the cash-for-dinners scandal.

Disgraced Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas resigned after boasting “premier league” supporters who give more than £250,000 are wined and dined by Mr Cameron and could even have a say on policy.

The latest cash-for-access row will come as a big blow to the PM who is still reeling from revelations about super-rich party donor Bill Ives, who was given a police caution for harassing his ex-wife.

Yesterday the Department for Transport insisted it was “entirely appropriate” for the Secretary of State to meet bosses of big transport firms.

But former Deputy PM John Prescott blasted: “It’s scandalous that Addison Lee paid the Tories a quarter of a million pounds, then touted for Government business.

“The taxpayer shouldn’t be taken for a ride by these modern day highwaymen.”

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle added: “It’s shocking a ‘premier league’ donor was given this kind of access to the then Transport Secretary.

“People will rightly be asking if ministers were willing to have their ears bent by vested interests, either at ‘kitchen suppers’ with the Prime Minister or in official meetings with ministers.”

Details of Mr Griffin’s meeting with Mr Hammond, who is now Defence Secretary, came after he sparked anger yesterday by ordering his drivers to use bus lanes. At the moment rival black cabs can use the lanes but private hire vehicles are banned.

The issue was raised by Mr Griffin at his meeting with Mr Hammond on October 13 last year, official minutes released under freedom of information laws show. The records reveal: “They discussed the Olympics, provision of secure cars for ministers and the background of the development of Addison Lee as a company.”

Mr Hammond “made clear no decision had been taken and that any option to move away from the current model for delivering the service towards private sector provision would have to be completed in accordance with public procurement rules”.

Mr Griffin told the minister that “having a dedicated car pool was an expensive luxury that private companies no longer provided for their employees”.

The minutes state he said: “They tended to leave it to other people, such as Addison Lee, to provide an ‘on demand’ service where the car and driver would not necessarily remain the same.”

Mr Griffin last night insisted he was not fishing for contracts and said he would be much better off talking to civil servants because they are “more influential”.

Mr Griffin said he deals mainly with FTSE 500 firms. He added: “They are our people. The big shots, not politicians. Politicians don’t have contracts but I like to go along and say hello because it is civil.”

He added: “Politicians are not running the country. Businessmen are. They are the housewives. We give them the money.”

Mr Griffin also sought to play down his access to Mr Cameron.

He said: “I’ve been twice to Number 10 Downing Street with about 70 other people there. I never spoke to him personally. I wasn’t going to be a brown-noser.”

Mr Griffin confirmed he had also been to the PM’s Notting Hill home around three years ago for a summer tea party which was attended by Sam and their kids.

He added: “I think there are people out there, quite forceful, who think ‘I’ve paid some money and you owe me something’, maybe there are, but I’m not that person.”

A spokesman for Mr Hammond said last night: “He does not recall having any information about donations to the Party at the time or when he subsequently met Mr Griffin in October 2011.”

The Conservative Party added: “There is no question of individuals gaining an unfair advantage by virtue of financial contributions.”

Story taken from the daily mirror