Blackburn with Darwen Council are spending £64,000 paying for 1,120 taxi drivers to have polycarbonate screens fitted in their cars.
The Council will be paying £64 per taxi to have protective screens fitted between drivers and passengers. The Council should explain why this action is only now being taken in Blackburn. Articles in the local press suggest that Hyndburn’s taxis were having protective screens fitted 2 weeks ago. Blackburn’s Covid-19 infection rates are higher than Hyndburn’s so our Council should explain why it has been slower to act to protect taxi drivers and passengers.
In other areas, such as Hyndburn, taxi drivers or taxi companies paid for the installation of screens themselves. The Council should explain why Blackburn with Darwen taxpayers are footing the bill for it here. Other private businesses and workers have had to fund their own protective measures and surely the Council has a duty to be fair and equal to all.
The news became public at the same time as it was revealed that the Council will be charging businesses the maximum allowed fee to have outdoor seating to help social distancing. Both outdoor seating and protective screens in taxis are preventive measures to help stop the spread of Covid-19. The Council should explain why taxi drivers are receiving a gift while other businesses are being charged the maximum amount possible at a time when they are already struggling. Labour argue that the Council cannot afford to charge businesses any less for their outdoor seating licences, yet they have found £64,000 for taxis. Labour Cllr Jim Smith is quoted in the Lancashire Telegraph saying “It is a matter of people’s safety, as simple as that”. Labour should be just as concerned about the safety of other private business staff and customers, and reduce the licence fees for outdoor seating to an acceptable level.
The Council should explain whether they will only be paying to fit protective screens to vehicles that are already licenced for private hire, or whether they will also be paying to fit screens to vehicles that become licenced in future.
The Council says there are 1,120 licenced taxi drivers but their sums are based upon 1,000 taxis requiring screens at £64 per screen. There is some dual registration of drivers, so that means the number of vehicles will be less than the number of drivers. However, the figure of 1,000 is a very round figure. The Council should explain whether there are precisely 1,000 licenced taxis in Blackburn with Darwen and, if not, what the actual figure (and therefore cost) is.
The Council have elected to install more expensive polycarbonate screens rather than a cheaper PVC alternative. There are 2 justifications given for this decision. The first is that the polycarbonate screen is more robust so will last longer. Given that taxi drivers will be expected to fund any replacement costs, the Council should explain why the decision to spend more taxpayer money than necessary on the initial installation is warranted – perhaps taxi drivers could have contributed to the cost if they wanted a more robust screen. The second is that it better meets the safety standards. This would be a valid reason but we would like to see the evidence for this - a PVC screen should prevent the transmission of Covid-19 just as well as a polycarbonate screen.
We would like to know what timescales are anticipated for the installation of the screens. Screens are important for driver and passenger safety and, given the Covid-19 situation in Blackburn with Darwen, they should be installed as quickly as possible. The selected provider was incorporated in 2018 and only began supplying screens in June 2020. We would like assurance that they have sufficient capacity to install 1,000 in a short time-frame.
The Council also needs to update its public register of licenced taxi drivers and its public register of private hire vehicles. According to the registers published on the Council’s website, there are only 431 valid private hire licences and 19 private hire vehicles with valid licences in Blackburn with Darwen at the time of writing. The registers are obviously badly out of date and there is no point having public registers if they are not kept up to date.
Based on the Council's figures there is approximately 1 taxi driver for every 133 people in Blackburn with Darwen. Or roughly 1 taxi for every 53 households. These figures seem extraordinary, so we would like the Council's registers to be updated so we can confirm them.