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.