Taxi driver suspended over offensive sign

Chesterfield taxi driver Eric Needham.
Chesterfield taxi driver Eric Needham.

A frustrated taxi driver’s offensive sign and verbal tirade in his campaign for tougher rules and safety regulations has landed him with a one-month suspension.

Eric Needham, 62, of Chesterfield Road, Temple Normanton, was punished by Chesterfield Borough Council’s licensing committee for using a sign in his cab banning non-English speaking customers after he had been attacked.

Taxi rank, Chesterfield

Taxi rank, Chesterfield

An unsuccessful Chesterfield magistrates’ court appeal brought by Mr Needham on Wednesday, February 3, against his taxi licence suspension also heard how he was punished for using offensive language and for not wearing his licensed taxi badge.

Mr Needham told the hearing: “The thing that hurts is that I’m a patient person but I say things in not a nice manner and I apologise. I call a spade a spade and if someone upsets me I will have a go and stand my corner.

“It hurts when I try to do the job in a proper manner and I care a lot for the people of this town and that is why it has come to this.

“If I said things that were not nice it was in the heat of the moment and I apologise.

Trevor Durham Licensing Manager Chesterfield Borough Council,

Trevor Durham Licensing Manager Chesterfield Borough Council,

“It’s frustration. That’s my problem and I am ashamed my 41 years as a taxi driver have been tarnished.”

The council imposed 13 licensing penalty points against Mr Needham for three breaches between May, 2014, and May, 2015 - exceeding a maximum twelve limit - and on October 14, last year, a council committee decided to impose a one-month taxi licence suspension.

Despite warnings, Mr Needham refused to move a sign from his taxi which read “Only English spoken in this vehicle” and failed to wear his licence badge, according to prosecuting barrister Asitha Ranatunga.

Mr Ranatunga revealed how further points had been imposed due to Mr Needham’s offensive language when dealing with council officers and Asian drivers.

He said: “Mr Needham refused to remove an inappropriate sign after being requested to do so on more than one occasion.

“He used inappropriate language about council officers and Asian drivers which were found offensive. Comments were made in public and demonstrated a lack of professionalism, courtesy and respect to the public.

“Since the committee decision in October, 2015, council licensing manager Trevor Durham has had further occasion to speak to Mr Needham and comments made in that conversation are consistent with his behaviour.”

Mr Needham told the court his behaviour was triggered after he repeatedly raised concerns with the council that regulations were not being enforced properly upon taxis across the borough.

The 62-year-old has previously campaigned over fears that too many cabs are being allowed to operate in the town, drivers are operating without vehicle checks and taxi-rank parking restrictions are not being enforced, meter tampering is not being monitored and unregulated and untrained cabbies are putting the public at risk and giving good cabbies a bad name.

Mr Needham told the court he had been attacked by two Asian customers with one putting an arm round his neck and the other punching him in the stomach during an attempted armed robbery and he fears a lot of drivers are in danger.

Mr Needham argued he had used the sign for his safety and has struggled to wear his badge because it gets in the way when dealing with wheelchair customers.

However, council licensing manager Trevor Durham told the court a council solicitor had found Mr Needham’s comments about Asian drivers offensive after he told the solicitor he needed the sign because he did not know what Asians were saying in his cab and whether they were saying anything derogatory, abusive or plotting.

Mr Durham stated no external or internal signs can be displayed in taxis other than stated by law and drivers must have a regard to the code of conduct and there was a failure to wear a badge and discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated. But he also stressed Mr Needham’s sign was not deemed racist.

Mr Durham added: “Mr Mann talked about Asian drivers not speaking English at the ranks and he has concerns about Asian taxi drivers and the people coming into his vehicle but you cannot compel someone to speak English. It was felt the sign didn’t serve a purpose and it was intended to offend. It could be considered that if you are not an English speaker you’re not welcome in this car.

“A lot of Mr Needham’s history involves derogatory comments about people from ethnic backgrounds. It’s unacceptable behaviour and not something we want from our taxi drivers.

“The regulations are only worth having if they are upheld and we are trying to do that and that kind of ranting and behaviour is bad enough for officers never mind the public.”

Mr Durham added he had also received a phone call from Mr Needham complaining about Asian taxi drivers and he accused them of bringing the taxi trade down and accused the council of not acting on two complaints despite no suspects having been identified.

Mr Durham said he warned Mr Needham but he carried on and blamed Asian drivers for the ills of the taxi trade.

Mr Needham’s friend and neighbour Stephen Wright, Chesterfield branch chairman of the Private Hire and Hackney Association Paul Mann, and fellow taxi driver David Hopton described him as “caring and good man”, “a responsible operator and no threat to the public”, and “one of the most honest blokes”.

However, Magistrates dismissed Mr Needham’s appeal though stressed that they did not doubt his devotion to the taxi trade and to the public.

Following the hearing, Councillor Andy Bellamy, Chesterfield Borough Council’s chair of appeals and regulatory committee, said: “We take the welfare of passengers travelling in taxis in the borough very seriously and we will take action to award penalty points and suspend or revoke licenses where necessary.

“We will also not tolerate people using abusive and offensive language to our staff.

“I am pleased that magistrates have recognised the severity of the case and upheld this suspension.”