THE TIMES SATURDAY REVIEW SEPTEMBER 5 1992
Minicabs have had a good run in London, Malcolm Macalister Hall reports, but licensed cabbies are fighting back in the increasingly violent battle for fares...
It has been a hot night, and Jim Wells is still in his T-shirt as dawn breaks over south London. "Good turn-out, given the time of day." he says. "We've won the lion's share of the work tonight. Normally, we. don't..." Around him. the narrow tangle of streets just up from the Elephant and Castle is gridlocked by about 60 black cabs, their For Hire lights blazing in the gloom. They inch past the entrance to the Ministry of Sound, the club regarded by trance-dance rovers as one of the capital's hottest tickets
Other cars try to weave through the melee -- Sierras, Carltons and Cavaliers, with magnetic radio aerials waving on their roofs. These are minicabs — unlicensed, unregulated private cars. They cut in front of the black cabs, and the black cabs cut in front of them, trying to box them in. As girls in long black skirts and platform shoes leave the club, there are shouts of "Take a licensed cab, love." A girl in a lethal-looking miniskirt chooses a black cab, to a round of applause from other drivers. "The minicab drivers feel threatened when there's a build-up of men like this," Wells says. "I think they've got the message."
As leader of the London Cab Drivers Club, Wells organised tonight's protest. He calls it a "drive-in". The idea is simple — pick a club or street where minicabs operate, put the word about, swamp the area with black taxis, and drive the minicabs out. This is the latest strategy in an increasingly savage feud between black cabs and minicabs which has broken out on the capital's streets in the past six weeks. With takings slashed by the recession and the possible licensing of minicabs now a keenly fought topic after the latest in a series of rapes, tempers have flared as both sides battle to keep control of their share of a multi-million pound business. There have been rights, threatening phone calls, and reports that baseball bats, hammers and catapults have been used.
Back at the Ministry of Sound, Dave Jessep is waiting for his passengers. He drives for Tower Bridge Cars, the minicab firm which has an account with the club. He says black-cab drivers have provoked him and his mates. "They've tried to entice us into a punch-up, but we're not cowboys. They've said things to women passengers like: 'Watch it. he might be a rapist.'" The dispatcher at the club for Tower Bridge Cars is Michael Loftus. He wears a leather jacket and a radio headset.
"In my words, this is total bollox." he says, surveying the log jam of black cabs. "They're just driving round and round, wasting diesel. and not letting our cars in. They park outside, and if you ask them to move, they're right rude about it." A moment later, there is a blizzard of abuse from a passing cab driver. "I just laugh at all this — it cracks me up," Loftus says. 'There's not way they'll drive us out of here."
Over on the opposite pavement. Wells and the cab drivers are giving no ground either. They insist that the presence of a minicab representative at a club constitutes illegal touting. It remains a murky and, as yet. untested legal area. "When there was plenty of work around, this kind of thing was left to go unchallenged," Wells says. "Now things are desperate, it's different. We're looking at every possible way to hassle them."
Wells and the drivers have staged "drive-ins" at other clubs, restaurants and minicab offices in the West End, the main battleground between the two groups. "If we can't win the West End, we might as well emigrate." Wells says. He maintains that, eventually, the bad blood is certain to boil over. "If you're not making a living and you see people stealing work from you in front of your face, it can only lead to violence."
In some cases it already has. In one incident outside a night-club, an African minicab driver is said to have been "chucked down the stairs because he wouldn't go away". In early July at Charing Cross, a minicab was reportedly boxed in by black cabs and repeatedly whacked with a baseball bat. The driver is said to have escaped by driving away on the pavement, further smashing up his car by ramming it through a narrow gap between a wall and some bollards.
Allan Kelly, the secretary of the London Cab Drivers Club, says he received threats after a sheet of the club's notepaper — which carried his address and telephone number — was allegedly obtained by a third party, photocopied, and sent anonymously to a string of minicab offices. "I got some nasty calls," Kelly says. "I was at home at about 10.30 one night, when the phone rang and a guy said he was going to come round and cut me up. A minute later he called back and said he was going to blow up my cab."
Meanwhile, in taxi shelters across London, among the mugs of tea and bacon sandwiches, there is usually a "scab box". On forms produced by the London Cab Drivers Club, hundreds of drivers have been logging the registration numbers of cars that they believe are being used as minicabs.
"On average we've been taking 40.000 numbers a week." Wells says. "We pass the details on to the Inland Revenue and Department of Social Security — many of these drivers are claiming dole."
Up against London's 16.500 black cabs, there are now said to be 40,000 minicabs. They are an unlicensed and often wildcat operation for the simple reason that no licensing system exists in the capital — unlike the rest of the country. To start up quite legally, all anyone needs is a car, a driving license, an MoT, and hire and reward insurance to cover fare-paying passengers. There is no vetting system whatever, and few rules. Minicabs are prohibited by law from touting passers-by for business, nor can they ply for hire (cruise the streets looking for fares). They cannot carry any markings indicating that they operate as a taxi, nor can they park together to form a taxi rank. The only legal ways to pick up a passenger are via a telephone booking or if the passenger turns up personally at the minicab office. Apart from these restrictions, minicabs have the run of the city.
Alongside the reputable outfits are the touts. Anyone who goes out late in London knows the form: leave a club at any time past midnight, hear the murmured "Cab, sir?" from among a knot of people on the pavement and walk round the corner to a battle-scarred Datsun, with sticky fake-fur seat covers and a Magic Tree air-freshener swinging from the rear-view mirror. Most established minicab firms are property run but. with such a lack of controls, black-cab drivers like to cite their extremely hypothetical (but just possible) "worst-case" situation: a man, they claim, could be released from prison in the morning, steal a car, and be driving for a cowboy minicab outfit by noon. Against this. London's 20,000 licensed black-cab drivers claim to be among the best-trained and best-regulated of any large city. Anything from 18 months to three years will be spent on the "knowledge", learning London's infernal street layout. There is police vetting, a driving test and health checks. Standards of driver behaviour and vehicle maintenance and cleanliness are enforced — ruthlessly, drivers complain — by the Public Carriage Office. Only the official black cab (which costs about £22.000) may be driven. All this, black-cab drivers say, is the reason minicabs can undercut their fares. Fare comparisons are tricky and depend not only on the state of the traffic but also on the passenger's bargaining skills at the minicab office. Notting Hill to Heathrow would be about £23 in a black cab, whereas a minicab firm does the trip for £16.50. The other great minicab selling point is their willingness to venture to the most obscure suburbs at any hour of the night.
Now the prospect of some form of licensing for London's minicab business has inflamed the situation even further. A recent department of Transport working party report recommends that some form of regulation should be introduced, but does not specify what this should be. Westminster City Council has also stepped in, proposing a license for the operators of minicab firms. An earlier plan to license individual drivers was dropped after an uproarious meeting last month at Marylebone town hall. "It just fell short of anybody getting arrested," one minicab driver said.
Both the Licensed Taxi Driver's Association (LTDA) and the breakaway groups are campaigning against a separate licensing system for minicabs, and insist that all drivers should be compelled to undergo training and vetting to black-cab standards. "It does not make sense to have two standards for people doing exactly the same job," says Harry Feigen, general secretary of the LTDA. The minicab trade, meanwhile, is naturally keen to be legitimised by a less rigorous licensing system, and maintains that the black-cab campaign is little more than protectionism.
"The taxi trade resists any changes because they see it as a dilution of their license and their historical rights. They're paranoid about it," says John Griffin, chairman of the Private Hire Car Association. It proposes an operator's license, issued by an independent authority which would scrutinise every driver's credentials and pass them on for vetting by the police.
Riyaz Hussain Ali is in the thick of the action. With clipboard and turban, he runs Swift and Safe Mini Cars in flamboyant style from the doorway of his office beside Leicester Square. AT night, from 8pm to 6am, there are greetings from passers-by, handshakes, shouts of "Hallo, boss" and "Maida Vale? About a fiver, mate." The customers come in all shapes and conditions — waitresses, theatre people, businessmen drunk and sober, sweat-soaked clubbers with shirts open to the waist and ties awry. His drivers, mostly African or Pakistani, include a Nigerian author, an electrical engineer, a businessman with an MBA, and an accountant. Their cars — Toyotas, Nissans, a Volvo with a clipped wing — are shoehomed into tiny spaces in the clogged streets nearby. Black cabs sit on a new rank opposite. Ali says there have already been three "drive-ins" outside his office.
"The black cabs are out of order," he says. "I find them quite aggressive. They drive past and call me w**ker and say, 'Go back to your country.' " He says there has been attempted fare-poaching, and alleges that one black-cab driver shoved him during an altercation, and that another threatened to put him through the plate-glass window next door."
At 2am, one of Ali's drivers took me home. "It's not any good any more," he said. "There's more expenses, and not enough work. If you go full-time, you go bankrupt — like me. But if you work in a shop or something, you're getting orders from people all day, and I can't stand that. The best thing about this job is it gives you freedom. It's like a poison, or a drug. Once you get into it, you never get away."