Private hire cab drivers cry foul over undercover officials
Belfast private hire taxi drivers claim government officials have used excuses like rushing to the birth of a child, being drunk and even having an appointment at the cancer centre to see if they can get a taxi outside the rules.
Regulations state Class A licensed taxis - those that are the private hire saloon cars - can only pick up passengers off the street at restricted times over the weekend, otherwise a booking is needed. Black hackney cabs, which have a B licence, can ply for trade off the street throughout the week.
Private hire taxi drivers have claimed they have been caught up in "sting" operations by officials using underhand tactics to see if they will pick up the fare without a booking.
The Department for Infrastructure said it was "very unlikely" the undercover enforcement officers used such tactics and they did not set out to appear vulnerable as part of their work.
However, one man, speaking on the BBC Stephen Nolan Show said he offered a drunk man a taxi, but as it was against regulations to allow him into his taxi, he called a friend who was sitting down the road to come and collect him - resulting in the two drivers getting hefty fines.
Various drivers called the show, alleging other tactics wereused in the operations. Among the claims were that an agent said he was rushing to hospital for the birth of his first child. Another said they had an appointment at the Belfast Cancer Centre. The taxi driver who offered the lift to the 'drunk' man said he felt he was acting in the "public interest" to help a "vulnerable man" and was shocked to realise it was a sting operation.
Gerry Maxwell of Belfast Public Hire Taxis, which represents the black hackney cab drivers which can pick up trade from the street, welcomed the undercover operations.
He told the Belfast Telegraph: "You have to feel for the enforcement agents, because they cannot come on to the radio to give their side of the story. No one is above the law."
Mr Maxwell, who said he has carried the undercover passengers himself and never been found to be acting wrongly, said more officers were needed.
"It's the only way to catch them," he added.
"I can't commend them enough for the job they do - it's our part of the industry that's affected.
"If it goes on and these drivers who have not the right licence are allowed to continue, then we will be out of business."
However, a Department for Infrastructure spokesman said that staff did not seek to appear vulnerable.
He added: "The DVA has been responding to an increase in complaints from licensed taxi drivers that their livelihood is being undermined by taxi drivers operating illegally. The DVA's role is to ensure vehicles are roadworthy and safe, and drivers have appropriate licence."