Is the nature of Private-Hire being exposed?


The events of the past few months appear to have exposed elements of the private-hire trade for what they actually are. The apparent unraveling of much sought after corporate images and the virtual implosion of their public personas may come as a surprise to many, but to very few in the taxi trade.

The initial Addison Lee declaration to deal with the issue of minicabs in bus lanes truly exposes the nature of how some in this particular business treat those laws they feel get in the way. No lobbying, no persuasion, no democracy, no desire to follow the (sometimes) frustrating rules many of us have followed over the years. A case of; ‘we’re going to get our way and we don’t mind throwing our cash at it to get a result’. It reeked of corporatism and of breathtaking arrogance; it has seemingly done much to expose the Addison Lee brand to bad publicity.

The immediate origins of the current meltdown lie in the attitude of this company towards the much criticized M4 bus lane, where they similarly instructed drivers to ignore the rule of law and illegally drive along the lane. The change of government led to the M4 bus lane being closed, this subsequently led the CPS to drop all tickets and summonses accumulated by Addison Lee vehicles. But the roots are deeper.

In part the roots lie in the triumph of the minicab trade being licensed courtesy of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 – that is, the new licensing system gave them a legitimacy they never previously had – the same people are there –greatly benefiting from the legitimacy of the license, albeit a bastardised legitimacy.

This legitimacy meant they would no longer be treated like any other motorist – in the case of the M4 bus lane, a lack of legitimacy would have led to fines being pursued irrespective of the rights and wrongs. The fact the latest gaffe has led to headlines in the national press describing the business concerned as a ‘taxi’ firm, is all part of the ‘doctrine of ignorance’ which is very often pushed by silly politicians, ignorant newspapers and almost certainly, private hire – but whilst they don’t mind being called ‘taxi’ companies – heaven forbid if they had to operate to the same rules and standards.

Predictably, the private-hire sector has reaped enormous profits from being licensed – well, when I write ‘private hire sector’, you should read ‘private-hire operator’ because there is little doubt the low wages of private hire drivers effectively mean many of them are claiming family tax credits and other state handouts to make their miserable lives more palatable. Whilst the profits of the operators approach almost FTSE proportions – the drivers’ wages are in all too many cases subsidised by the tax payer.

Of course, what rankles some, is the donations to political parties, whilst drivers are claiming tax credits and state benefits, some in the private-hire industry have so much money, they give it to political parties? Indeed, giving £254K to a political party, whilst ‘pseudo employees’ are doing Victorian hours is also a wee bit of a moot point, beyond the ken of many a decent person. It has echoes of the dark satanic mill owners. It’s the fact whilst so many people are going through hardship, private hire drivers included, that a person would stand by and say they’d cover all fines and suchlike for law breaking. This in itself would be admirable, if those law breakers were protesting about our continued involvement in a silly war in Afghanistan or cutting tax rates for people who’ve got more money than sense, something worthwhile, but fines tickets for a bus lane? That’s bordering on insane.

Furthermore, meeting the Secretary of State for transport and amongst the first things said is a tacit reassurance your tax arrangements for drivers being explicitly agreed with HMRC is bordering on just plain weird. But I digress.

It is doubtful the profits of such companies would reach such mouth watering levels if drivers were employed as opposed to being self employed. Transport for London recently stated;

“There are currently some 60,000 licensed private hire drivers however turnover in the trade is rapid. Only about two thirds of drivers apply to renew their licences on expiry and it is likely that some of the drivers who do not renew do not work throughout the full licence period.”

The above statement in respect of the turnover of private hire drivers in London is truly breathtaking – it’s reasonably obvious to conclude whilst the profits of operators take an ever upward spiral, these profits cannot be reaped further down the food-chain in the very ungrand and unfair scheme of things. Otherwise the drivers would obviously stay.

The much coveted legitimacy I referred to above, a bastardised legitimacy in respect of private-hire, can be directly correlated to the turnover of drivers. Licenses are relatively easy to obtain – in effect they are not worked for or achieved – they are merely something you can obtain in a post office, whilst perhaps collecting your stamps or checking your premium bonds. When something is easy to obtain – it is insignificant when lost or given up.

Of course, making a private-hire license a little harder to achieve would be (and was) deemed an unnecessary gamble by operators. The DSA test is one obvious example. It’s a prerequisite of license in many areas of the country, more accurately it is deemed as part of a council’s lawful (and reasonable) right to request information from an applicant. This was however, fundamentally opposed by London private-hire operators. Under normal circumstances such a standard may greatly benefit not only the minicab users of London, but all fellow motorised road users, pedestrians and more ironically, cyclists – yet such a qualification would have the byproduct of reducing the available pool of drivers. This could simply not be allowed, all manner of persuasion followed to convince TfL to take a different course. TfL were subsequently subservient to the demands of the operators.

In a functioning democratic society, an issue such as private-hire access to bus-lanes would lead to a campaign, I am almost certain my old adversary from the GMB Professional Drivers Branch, Terry Flanagan, would do, as he has done in the past, campaign to address such a fundamental issue. He would doubtless look into the root causes and cures, and propose the means by which his union could achieve the end result, all the time working with the authorities and indeed perhaps the cab trade. Yet even Terry has condemned the reckless approach of the minicab operator in this issue as irresponsible, wanting to know if a driver is suspended who will pay for any suffrage endured?

The Saturday evening following the meltdown saw numerous BBC radio shows gave the company concerned a platform, it is to the ultimate shame of the BBC that they appear to have almost unquestioningly accepted the spin of the company, who’s stance changed in the space of 24 hours to one of doing their level best to help cyclists by highlighting the problem. The fact that they were encouraging their own 3500 drivers to break the law and use bus lanes was seemingly forgotten.

The end game is fast approaching, be this the law commission or the judicial review, this aside, we face an interesting few months.

By Wayne Casey