The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault by Transport for London on Mr W’s complaint of it delaying processing his application for a private hire driver’s licence. It should have sent his driver’s badge along with the replacement licence when told he had not received its previous letter or taken steps to clarify whether he had received it. It delayed sending the replacement badge by a further 3 months. The agreed action remedies the injustice caused.
- Mr W complains Transport for London (TFL) delayed processing his application for a private hire driver’s licence which meant he did not receive it and the driver’s badge for 6 months; as a result, he was unable to work for this period which caused a loss of income and a great deal of stress.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information provided by Mr W, the notes I made of our telephone conversation, and TFL’s response to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent him. I sent a copy of my initial draft decision to Mr W and the TFL. I considered their responses. Having done so, I sent them both a copy of this my revised draft decision. I considered TFLs response.
What I found
- All licensed private hire drivers must work for a licensed private hire operator. Private hire drivers need a licence which they can get from TFL. Mr W applied for his licence in August 2019. With his application, he sent a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate he had from when he worked for a council. This was dated July.
- A DBS certificate allows employers and organisations to make recruitment safer by helping to ensure unsuitable people are not working with vulnerable groups, such as children, for example. The DBS sends a results certificate to an applicant who then shows it to an employer. This shows details of convictions and conditional cautions, for example, but can include more details such as spent, and unspent, convictions.
- In response to my enquiries, TFL explained an application is processed in stages. Once it has carried out basic preliminary checks, the applicant is referred for a topographical skills assessment. Once this is completed, TFL considers the rest of the application and supporting documentation.
- In early September, TFL wrote to him explaining if he passed the topographical assessment it would move his application to the next stage of its process. This includes a full assessment of his application and supporting documents, including his medical fitness and DBS disclosure. It warned this could mean asking him for further information to ensure he met all the required criteria for a licence.
- Mr W booked an assessment for November, which he passed. In December, TFL told him his application was incomplete. The problem was the DBS certificate results as he had applied using the wrong workforce code. TFL suggested he either provide the online disclosure reference for a check already submitted or, carry out a DBS check through its own service provider or, if he had not used its own service provider, send a full copy of the disclosure certificate issued by the DBS. It warned he must use the correct workforce code which for him was, ‘Taxi and Private Hire Driver’. Without this, TFL could not accept the application.
- Nearly 2 weeks later, TFL again wrote to Mr W reminding him his application remained incomplete. It could not accept his existing DBS number he provided as it contained the incorrect workforce code. The email told him he needed to do an enhanced DBS check through its own service provider and to include the workforce code ‘Other Workforce Taxi or Private Hire Driver’. Mr W was unhappy as he claimed his certificate was more enhanced than the one TFL wanted.
- Mr W got a new DBS certificate through TFL’s service provider at a cost of £65. TFL received it towards the end of January 2020. Having heard nothing, he chased TFL in February. In its reply, TFL said it sent him both the licence and the driver’s badge at the start of that month. Mr W says he received neither.
- In March, he claims he received the licence but, not the driver’s badge. He also says the licence was dated 4 February which meant he had already lost 1 month of the 12 months lifespan of the licence. Around this time, the country went in to lockdown because of COVID-19.
- At the start of April, Mr W wrote to TFL about its failure to provide the driver’s badge. Without the badge, Mr W could not work.
- In July, Mr W finally received the driver’s badge which meant he could now work. When he approached private hire firms, they told him they had enough drivers because of a reduced demand due to COVID-19 restrictions. Mr W is unhappy with the total time it took for TFL to send him the driver’s licence and badge. He also complains the whole process cost him almost £400 and cost him lost work.
- TFL’s website states:
- to qualify for a licence, applicants must meet specified criteria. This includes being of ‘good character’. It establishes this by applicants having an, ‘enhanced criminal records check from DBS through our service provider’;
- all drivers must wear their driver badge during private hires; and
- all applicants must do a topographical skills assessment as part of their application.
- There is no statutory timeframe for processing private hire licences. Each licence must be given proper consideration to ensure the applicant is of good character and medically fit. We would expect, as a matter of good practice, the processing of licences in a timely manner.
- In response to my initial draft decision, TFL provided the following additional information:
- The basic checks it makes when it receives an application are to ensure an applicant meets the mandatory requirements for licensing. This involves checking they are at least 21 years old, hold a valid driving licence, and have the right to live and work in the UK, for example.
- When these are done, the application is passed to the Driver Assessment Team to arrange the topographical test. Once this is passed, TFL continues to process the application and review the supporting documentation received.
- The reason for doing it this way is that if an applicant does not pass the test after 2 attempts, the application is withdrawn. A significant number of applicants do not pass the test. Those who fail do not progress beyond this stage. It explained if it had to check all supporting documents when it received each application, and request further documentation at this stage if there is a problem with what was sent, both TFL and the applicant would incur substantial additional costs with no guarantee of having a licence granted. This would have huge resource implications for TFL.
- TFL accepts some applicants are prepared to risk having a review of their medical fitness and DBS certificate before they take the test. It pointed out that its letter to him in September 2019 gave him this option. I have seen a copy of this letter. The letter warned doing this could delay completion of the topographical skill and assessment. Mr W failed to take this option which meant TFL carried on with its usual procedure.
- I make the following findings on this complaint:
- Mr W applied for the licence in August 2019. With it, he sent supporting documents including his previous DBS certificate. TFL states it carries out ‘preliminary checks’ when it first receives an application. In response to my initial draft decision, it explained what these involve.
- I am satisfied with TFL’s explanation about why the problem with Mr W’s DBS certificate was not identified during the preliminary checks. To check all the documentation at this stage would be onerous, particularly if a significant number of applicants fail the topographical test and, therefore, fail to get a licence.
- I am also satisfied TFL gave Mr W the option to have his documents considered before he took the test. There was the risk of this delaying the topographical test but, it would have identified the problem with his DBS certificate earlier. Mr W did not pursue this option. In addition, its website does explain he needed to apply for a DBS check through its own provider.
- I also considered Mr W’s complaint about TFL not sending him the driver’s licence and the badge at the same time. TFL said it sent Mr W his licence and driver’s badge in February by first class post. I have seen a copy of this letter. Mr W claimed he received nothing. There is simply not the evidence to conclude fault by TFL as Mr W’s failure to receive it may well have been due to third party actions, for example.
- A couple of weeks after this letter, he says he emailed TFL about not receiving the licence. I have not seen a copy of this email. The following week, he emailed TFL again. I have seen a copy of this email and TFL’s reply which confirmed it sent it to him the previous month.
- At the start of March, TFL sent him a replacement licence. The letter does not refer to the driver’s badge. I consider the failure to send him the badge as well at this point was fault. This is because it was aware of Mr W’s claim that he had not received the licence. As the previous letter enclosing the licence also referred to enclosing the badge, it was reasonable to assume Mr W had not received the badge as well. At the very least, TFL needed to contact Mr W and clarify whether he received the badge or not.
- In April, Mr W confirmed to TFL he had not received the driver’s badge. TFL eventually sent him the badge in July, 3 months later. This delay is fault. I have seen no evidence which shows TFL contacting Mr W between April and July to let him know why it was taking so long to re-send it to him.
- The injustice from the fault identified meant Mr W lost the opportunity to work. As he was not working as a driver immediately before applying, it is speculative to say what his lost income might have been. In addition, I took account of the fact that at the start of the year, COVID-19 was spreading across Europe and was likely to spread here. This would impact on people’s mobility and travel which, would also impact on the demand for private hire taxis.
- I also consider his injustice includes frustration and inconvenience of pursuing TFL about his missing driver’s badge.
- I considered our guidance on remedies.
- TFL agreed to, within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, carry out the following:
- Send Mr W a written apology for; failing to send him the driver’s badge in March 2020; taking an additional 3 months to send him a replacement driver’s badge.
- Remind officers to clarify with applicants which documents they are claiming not to have received.
- Take steps to ensure the reason for the delay sending the replacement driver’s badge to him is identified and not repeated in the future.
- Pay Mr W £150 to acknowledge the avoidable injustice caused.
- The Ombudsman found fault on Mr W’s complaint against TFL. The agreed action remedies the injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman