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COCK UP OR CONSPIRACY?

17/09/2010

By Peter J Rose

Looking at many of the taxi trade blogs, twitter posts and the like, it is obvious that the major issue on the minds of capitals cabbies is not – a standard colour for taxis, not dress codes for drivers, not even sector identifiers for taxis, the so called yellow badge stickers. No!, the one thing that is on the lips of most concerned taxi drivers, is the rampant touting by minicab drivers and the illegal activities of the Clipboard Johnnies.

The UNITE Cab Section through Cab Trade News has been highlighting these problems for many a long month now. Traveling London-wide, seeking out the dubious activities of private hire trade and their controlling Johnnie, clipboard in hand, ready and willing to accommodate the expectant minicab driver. Recent events at the Dorchester Hotel, has without doubt magnified the attention on London Taxi and Private hire. The TfL department as well as this cab section was inundated with emails and telephone calls of complaints from working taxi drivers, angry and confused that a working taxi rank had been suspended in favour of a minicab operation. The Response from LTPH was at least swift, franticly sending out emails apologising to the trade. But as I write this I am aware that as yet LTPH has yet to make an official statement on the TfL website. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long as we have for the PCO notice regarding taxi drivers being included in Boris’s ‘One strike and you’re out’ to be amended. Yes we got an apology but the notice still stands two years later!

Every taxi driver that works past 10pm knows that the enforcement of minicab touts and Clipboard Johnnies is, despite ‘best efforts’ frankly pitiful. The trade seems to spend its time chasing its minicab tail like a demented dog, going round in circles getting nowhere, unable to catch our elusive appendage. Stuck with a Mayor, that promised much to the trade but as yet has unequivocally failed to deliver. If anything the situation is getting worse. But why? Lack of police numbers is the most often used excuse and we are frequently told that even if they had a thousand enforcement officers, they would still not be able to get on top of the situation. Perhaps it’s time we looked at how we got here and examine logical solutions for a way out?

Reading the 1998 Private Hire Act it would look to have reasonable safeguards in place for the taxi trade, in particular the record keeping arrangements for private hire, stating that full records must be kept at every centre the licensee operates from. As well as the details of every booking that the centre undertakes, a full set of records of the drivers that were available do the work was to be kept at the relevant operating centre. The 2008 Transport for London Act removed this requirement. Now driver records only have to be kept at a one ‘designated operating centre’. My view is that this change in requirement has led to widespread abuse of the system and minicab drivers are turning up at clipboards ad-hoc, in the hope of a job. Of course the police on the ground have ‘no hope’ of checking to see if the driver is taking the booking legally because the operator has no requirement to keep a record of his drivers at the centre. Worth noting that in June of last year the then PCO issued a notice reminding operators of their record keeping requirements. Although the notice focused on the destinations of the bookings it is relevant that operators had to be reminded of their obligations.

Another issue that has come to light is that of Planning permission. We know from Peter Bond’s report in last month’s CTN, that the PCO, despite denials, removed the requirement upon themselves to check that operators had gained the appropriate planning permission for their centres and left it to local authorities to check. With this in mind, UNITE Cab Section activists are at the moment gathering information from local councils regarding the planning requirements, asking what the requirements would be if someone wanted to operate minicabs from a bar, club or restaurant. So far only the City of London has responded to our requests. It would appear that the City does not require a club, bar or restaurant to seek planning permission for a minicab operating centre, providing that the service is only used for the customers of that particular venue. The situation does change however if you wanted to operate minicabs from somewhere like the Royal Exchange. Then you would need to jump through several hoops to get your minicab office. I’m willing to bet that when we get the responses from Westminster etc. the story will be much the same. In fact I’m willing to bet that Westminster Council is more concerned about the planning requirements regarding Addison Lee’s ashtrays than they are about Satellite offices.

The third piece of this particular jigsaw is the police. In a resent email to one of the blog sites, LTPH said that in spite of issuing a notice in May, stating that from the 1st June 2010 there would be no more Satellite office licences issued until after a private hire trade consultation was complete; they would issue a licence should there be exceptional circumstances, i.e. a request from the police. Why would the police request a Satellite office be licensed? I can only surmise that the request would have something to do with public order concerns. Am I right? Is the loose system of minicab satellite offices being used as a way of clearing the streets of potential trouble quickly, therefore reducing police resource requirements? A frightening prospect, given the unacceptable number of sexual assaults that take place in minicabs. Let’s hope I’m wrong on that one.

So what’s the way forward? I believe that not only do we need better enforcement on the ground, something that Ken Livingstone has promised to address should he regain the Mayoralship of London, see page 7 of Cab Trade News – out next week. We also need to look at the way TfL, local councils and the police have allowed private hire regulations to be chipped away. Hopefully these observations will be open to debate when we finally get the promised private hire consultation.  Anything less will only confirm my worst fears.

Be seeing you.

To be published in the October issue of Cab Trade News. Out September 21st

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