Council leaders and safety campaigners have condemned government plans to relax the criminal checks designed to protect passengers from dangerous taxi drivers.
Prospective taxi and private car hire drivers must pass an enhanced criminal record bureau (CRB) check, which gathers information from local police records, the Police National Computer, child protection and sex offenders registers. The checks are repeated every three years to satisfy licensing authorities that drivers do not pose a risk.
The Home Office wants to replace this with a standard CRB check which relies on information about convictions, cautions and reprimands.
Transport for London, the capital's licensing authority, rejected 240 drivers between 2002 and 2008 after enhanced checks uncovered incidents of rape, terrorist activities, organised crime and drug dealing. They say these incidents would have been missed by less rigorous checks.
In a letter to the Home Secretary, Teresa May, last month the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, called the move "incomprehensible". Mr Johnson, who is at loggerheads with the Government on a number of key policies including police cuts, told Ms May that enhanced checks were necessary to protect people from "robbery, assault or worse".
In one case – outside London – an applicant was found to have been arrested for "grooming" a 14-year-old girl with learning difficulties. He had sent her nude photographs of himself and police found child pornography on his laptop. The case never reached court and so would have been missed by a standard CRB check.
Jo Walker, from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, said the move would undermine campaigns encouraging people, especially women, to use only licensed cabs because they were safer. "This will compromise the safety of passengers as taxi drivers can pick up vulnerable children and adults at any time, and you don't get much more vulnerable than Saturday night partygoers. I can't think of any reason for this change apart from financial reasons."
In an attempt to reduce the number of people undergoing criminal checks, the Home Office appears to have altered its interpretation of the law which states that enhanced checks should be carried out on people working with vulnerable adults and children. Taxi drivers are not on list of occupations in the Police Act 1997 but have long been subject to the most stringent measures.
It is believed that TFL and councils across the country have ignored Home Office instructions, circulated in May, to stop submitting enhanced checks because they fear it will compromise public safety.
Henri Murison from Newcastle City Council said councils should be left to decide what was best for their communities. "No one is complaining about this," he said. "I never found a single taxi driver who doesn't support enhanced checks."
The Local Government Association is lobbying the Home Office for a re-think. It says the proposals are particularly surprising given several recent high-profile criminal cases, including cabbie John Worboys, who was convicted of 12 sexual assaults in 2009.
A Home Office spokesperson said unnecessary checks were clogging up the system, and stressed that the law had not changed.