The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council acted in a biased way towards a training provider and it was not transparent in its response to his communications and his complaint. We upheld the complaint. Mr X also complained the Council failed to consider concerns raised about the conduct and standards at the training provider. We found the Council should have considered the concerns raised and it had failed to do so. The Council has now taken action by amending its taxi driver application pack. The Council should also apologise, pay the Association £250 and consider the concerns raised about standards.
- The Council requires all taxi licence applicants to undertake a BTEC course and, if appropriate, a Literacy and Numeracy test. Mr X complains on behalf of a Taxi Association, (I refer to them as “the Association”). He says that until Mid 2019, the Council’s taxi licence application pack only signposted taxi licence applicants to a one training provider (I refer to them as “Training Provider Y”) for these courses. He says this disadvantaged other training providers unreasonably. The Council amended the licence application pack in Mid-2019. Mr X felt it still placed Training Provider Y at an advantage.
- The Association complained the Council’s actions have been biased. They alleged the Council created Training Provider Y, which it promotes. They felt there was a connection between the Council and Training Provider Y which the Council had not been transparent about.
- The Association also complained about problems with the quality of the training and incidents of racism at Training Provider Y. Because the Council signposts applicants to them, the Association considered the Council had some responsibility for these issues.
- While the complaint was ongoing, the Association and its legal adviser, raised other queries. These included a request that the Council promoted the Association’s training course, queries about the way that air quality measures were being considered, and questions about a council company the Council uses to test vehicles and assess driver competence.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr X and considered the information he provided. I asked the Council for information and I considered its response to the complaint. I sent a draft decision to Mr X and to the Council to enable both parties to make comments. I considered the comments I received before reaching a final decision.
What I found
- The Council’s policy says drivers who wish to become private hire or hackney carriage drivers must undertake a BTEC or NVQ in passenger transport or a similar qualification approved by the Council.
- The Council’s Licensing Committee agreed in principle to the introduction of a BTEC course in May 2013.
- “Hull Training” is the Council’s adult education department. Hull Training initially agreed some funding for the BTEC course. In August 2013 the Licensing Committee implemented the BTEC course as a licensing requirement. The introduction of the qualification was put on hold for a short period in late 2013 due to funding issues. The Licensing Committee reinstated the requirement for the qualification in December 2013.
- As at the time of the Association’s complaint, the Council’s application pack for taxi drivers stated applicants needed to pass a BTEC course and take two other tests. The first was a “Pre-BTEC assessment” (later referred to in the pack as a Literacy and Numeracy Assessment). The second was a Knowledge & Speaking and Listening Assessment. These were mandatory.
Complaint One - about the Council promoting Training Provider Y
- Mr X complained it was inappropriate that the Council’s licensing pack referred to one provider of the BTEC course. In February 2019, a consultant representing the Association wrote to the Council about the BTEC course and other issues. At that time the Council’s taxi licence application pack stated:
“In order to obtain a Private Hire/Hackney Carriage Driver’s Licence, applicants are required to register and complete the BTEC…We can provide a course provider through [Training Provider Y]. Please contact [Training Provider Y] on….”
- Among other issues he raised with the Council, the consultant noted the Association had been running their own BTEC course for a year. This was in partnership with a training company. The consultant asked the Council to also name the Association’s course in the training pack. This would enable prospective taxi drivers to choose between the course providers.
- In May Mr X sent the Council a formal complaint. He alleged bias because the Council was only advertising Training Provider Y’s BTEC course. He also questioned standards at Training Provider Y, which Mr X referred to as the Council’s training provider. In June Mr X sent further letters to the Council.
- The Council’s Head of Audit and Fraud acknowledged the complaints about the licence application pack and about Training Provider Y on 25 June. He stated, due to the seriousness of some of the allegations, he was investigating as he was outside of the department concerned.
- In respect of the advertising of the course, the Council’s response stated, until recently only Training Provider Y delivered the BTEC in the area. It acknowledged this was no longer the case as the Association had begun providing the course in 2018. So, the Council stated it had “removed reference to either provider from its application form.”
- The Council did change the application pack as a result of the complaint. Although it reworded it, it did not remove the reference to Training Provider Y. Following the complaint, the pack stated:
“In order to obtain a Private Hire/Hackney Carriage Driver’s Licence, applicants are required to register and complete the BTEC…The BTEC can be obtained through any accredited provider, however the course can be provided through [Training Provider Y]. Please contact [Training Provider Y] on...if you wish to use this provider.”
Complaint One - Was there fault by the Council
- I found there was fault by the Council on the first part of Mr X’s complaint.
- The Council’s training pack endorsed one provider. I understand for some years there has only been one provider of this course in the area. However, the Council agreed it was no longer appropriate to direct applicants to Training Provider Y after the Association began its own course and agreed to remove reference to either provider.
- The Council failed to take the action it agreed. The revised pack stated any provider could be used but it still, in effect, pointed applicants to Training Provider Y. The Council clearly created an expectation that it would remove reference to Training Provider Y from its taxi licensing pack and it did not do so.
- It took until January 2020, after Mr X brought a complaint to the Ombudsman, for the Council to properly address the issue.
- The raising of Mr X’s expectations and the failure to take the action agreed was fault. This led to Mr X having to pursue his complaint further and the Council continued to promote Training Provider Y unfairly.
Complaint Two - Bias/Transparency
- Mr X alleged the Council had set up Training Provider Y and the Council was biased towards them. He believed there may be links between the Council and Training Provider Y which were not transparent. When Mr X asked the Council if it had any connections to them, through “Arms-Length Companies”, the Council told him it did not.
- As part of his complaint Mr X referred to council staff from an in‑house Council company acting as board members at Training Provider Y. The Council acknowledged that staff had currently or previously acted as board members. The Council set out publicly available information from the Charity Commission’s website for Training Provider Y. It showed there had been no payments to its management committee or any board members.
- The Council told Mr X there was no other information to suggest that the Council had an interest in Training Provider Y. As a result, the Council suggested Mr X’s concerns about Training Provider Y should be directed to the Charities Commission. It provided the link for him to do this.
- In his complaint to the Ombudsman Mr X stated the Council held a financial charge on Training Provider Y’s property. This is confirmed in Training Provider Y’s accounts. The Council confirmed this was true. It told us it provided the trustees of Training Provider Y with a grant to enable them to purchase their premises in 2005. The Council explained it would only benefit from any uplift in the value of the property in the event of sale.
- ‘Hull Training’ is the Council’s adult education department. We asked the Council to explain what links exist between the Council, Hull Training and Training Provider Y.
- The Council told us Training Provider Y is a subcontractor providing apprenticeships for Hull Training. Initially, it stated it had no contractual relationship with Training Provider Y to provide a taxi driver course.
- We made further enquiries to establish the Council’s arrangements with Training Provider Y to provide the Literacy & Numeracy and Knowledge & Speaking and Listening Assessments. The Council provided some contradictory statements in response. It first stated it did contract with Training Provider Y to provide the BTEC course along with the Literacy and Numeracy Assessment and the Knowledge & Speaking and Listening Assessments. It said it did this in 2013 by extending an existing contract it had with Training Provider Y. It later clarified that it had paid for a pilot BTEC course, but it had not formally entered into a contract for the BTEC. But it said it had contracted with Training Provider Y for the other tests.
- We asked the Council how it decided to place the contract for these courses with Training Provider Y as opposed to any other provider. The Council did not explain this. But it confirmed the contract to provide these qualifications had not been reviewed or renewed since 2013.
- In January 2020, following our further enquiries, the Council decided to further revise its Taxi Licence Application Pack. In addition to removing the reference to Training Provider Y in relation to the BTEC course, the Council also removed the need for a “Pre-BTEC assessment”.
- The need for a Knowledge & Speaking and Listening Assessment remained mandatory. However, the Council stated it would review the contract for providing the various elements of the taxi driver course with support from its Procurement Team.
- The Council told us it needed to retain tight governance over Knowledge & Speaking and Listening Assessment (i.e. the test needed to be closely supervised and should only sit with one provider). However, which organisation is contracted to provide the test would form part of the review.
Complaint Two - Was there fault by the Council
- I found the Council’s actions were biased towards Training Provider Y. I say this because, after Mr X made it aware another BTEC course provider existed, the Council continued to point applicants to Training Provider Y.
- In addition, the Council had clearly set up the pilot course and contracted with Training Provider Y to provide other elements of the assessment of taxi drivers. It had not reviewed or renewed the contractual arrangements with Training Provider Y for around 7 years. Hull Training’s Supply Chain and Subcontractor Fees and Charges Policy states that providers are expected to complete a due diligence process annually and subcontractor contracts are in place for one year. Their contracts are not automatically renewed. So, it is also unclear why no review of Training Provider Y’s contract has occurred.
- The Council has now changed the taxi driver application pack to remove the bias towards Training Provider Y.
- I also found the Council’s response to Mr X’s correspondence and his complaint was not open and transparent. The Council suggested no links existed with Training Provider Y in connection with the BTEC course. This was not the case as the Council had funded the BTEC course pilot with them and Training Provider Y was a subcontractor, providing the other tests. The Council’s response to our enquiries was not, initially, accurate about this. The failure to provide a clear explanation of its links with Training Provider Y in response to Mr X’s complaint was fault.
Complaint Three - Allegations made about the training provider
- The Association also raised concerns about the standards at Training Provider Y and about the conduct of staff. These included:
- Training Provider Y’s adherence to standards by leading educational bodies.
- That the staff working at Training Provider Y were not suitably qualified.
- That Training Provider Y had relationships with certain taxi operators.
- That Training Provider Y was institutionally racist and treated foreign applicants differently.
- Pearson act as the awarding body for various qualifications including BTECs. The Council referred Mr X to Pearson’s complaint and feedback process. Pearson’s complaints policy allows for complaints to be made about malpractice. This is defined by Pearson and covers a range of possible issues. These do include allegations of deception, assisting candidates beyond that permitted by regulations, breaches of confidentiality, conduct of assessments, examinations, and handling of exam or course related material.
- Mr X felt the Council should have looked into the concerns the Association raised.
Complaint Three – Was there fault by the Council
- While a complaint could have been made to Pearson, we have established that Training Provider Y is a subcontractor of the Hull Training and is contracted to provide some of the tests the Council requires for taxi drivers.
- Hull Training’s policies state it has a role to monitor the quality of its teaching and to take account of the views of its learners. It states subcontractors are part of a robust annual quality cycle. Following annual audits, an action plan is written and/or updated and recommendations are made. The action plans are monitored. Hull Training charges a management fee to its subcontractors to allow it to carry out a range of support, advice, guidance and the regular monitoring of subcontractors.
- As the Council contracts Training Provider Y to provide courses, I would have expected the Council to have considered the concerns raised by the Association. I would also have expected the Council to be able to consider their concerns about Training Provider Y against the information it obtains as part of the regular monitoring Hull Training carries out of its subcontractors.
- I found the Council’s failure to consider the Association’s concerns was fault.
Complaint Four – Other issues
- I have considered the advertising of Training Provider Y’s BTEC course in response to the Complaint One. I recognise that Mr X’s solicitor raised other issues in correspondence with the Council after the initial complaint was made. However, the Council responded to these points. There was no fault in the Council’s response to these issues, so I have not repeated the issues and the Council’s responses in this statement.
- Within four weeks of my final decision, the council should take the following action:
- The Council should apologise to the Association for the lack of transparency in its responses to their complaints and correspondence. It should also apologise for the delay in removing Training Provider Y from the application pack. To recognise the time and trouble the Association was put to in pursuing these issues, the Council should pay them £250.
- The Council should consider the concerns the Association raised about Training Provider Y and provide a response to the Association.
- There was fault by the Council. The Council has agreed to meet our recommendations so I have now completed my investigation.
Parts of the Complaint I did not investigate
- Mr X’s correspondence to us included events going back to 2014. Within this correspondence he questioned the Councils original decision to implement a BTEC course to ensure taxi driver applicants met the ‘fit and proper person’ test and issues raised via his MP some years ago. We expect complaints to be brought to us within 12 months of the person being aware of them. I have not investigated the historic issues Mr X raised as they are too old for us to consider now.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman