A CRACKDOWN has seen a dozen private hire drivers fined hundreds of pounds for illegally plying for hire in Oxford.

Only black cabs, known as Hackney carriages, can pick up customers in the street.

Ignoring the rules – brought in during the 1960s – invalidates private hire drivers’ insurance.

Oxford City Council’s licensing team launched its first crackdown on the practice just over a year ago.

It sends officers out across the city several times a year to try to catch drivers in the act.

Since enforcement operations started in November 2011, 12 private hire drivers have been caught.

They were fined between £60 and £610, were ordered to pay costs of up to £200 and seven of them received six points on their licences.

The city council refused to give details that would have allowed the public to know the identities of the men fined.

Private hire driver Richard Barlow, 59, said he felt the team did valuable work.

He said: “It’s important for them to do it because private hire drivers aren’t supposed to pick up unless they’ve been booked.

“It does annoy me when I see drivers doing it. I try to report it when I can, but you need to be able to prove it.”

City council enforcement officer Allan Hibberd said the crackdown was to ensure public safety.

He said: “Private hire drivers work through an operator, and if you want their services you have to phone up and book the vehicle and it will be dispatched to you.

“That is the only way you can use a private hire vehicle legally. They are not allowed to stop if someone hails them, and the drivers know the difference.

“This whole operation is about private hire drivers who operate illegally by operating as an unlicensed Hackney carriage.

“If they do that, they’re also committing a second offence, which is more serious, because their vehicle is only insured to operate through a pre-booking system – if they are not pre-booked, they are driving without insurance.”

No reported accidents have taken place while a driver was uninsured over the past year.

In plain clothes, the council officers attempt to hail private hire vehicles or approach them if they are stopped.

If the driver takes the fare, the officers secretly record the vehicle’s and driver’s details on a mobile phone, and then meet Mr Hibberd at an agreed location.

Potentially, taxi drivers can lose their licence, but so far none in Oxford has for illegally plying for hire.

Customers cannot necessarily call up and book the private hire car in front of them if they refuse the fare.

Mr Hibberd said firms allocated their drivers based on availability and fairness, to ensure all drivers get fares, so passengers are not guaranteed to get the one they have flagged down.