Dear Mayor Johnson,
I am a Licensed Taxi driver and I writing to express my concern about the scale of illegal minicab touting in London.
Touting now takes place in a significant number of bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels all over the city and is no longer the preserve of the lone operator. In many cases these unlawful outfits have evolved into something more sophisticated, involving nightclub door staff, hotel porters, restaurant managers and ‘Minicab Marshals’, all of who pursue and harass potential customers on behalf of their ‘drivers’.
Whilst I appreciate that this criminal offence has always been a problem, I am writing to you because it is now happening on an unprecedented scale. I am bewildered how this black market operation has been allowed to thrive given that all the authorities acknowledge the risks it poses to the traveller, particularly at night.
The severity of the situation has, at least, been recognised by the Metropolitan Police Sapphire Unit, which has noted that sexual predators are using touting as a route to identify and pursue victims. However, although the problem has been acknowledged, this activity poses an ongoing risk to public safety and a real threat to the future of the Licensed Taxi trade.
Whilst I understand that TfL is working with the Police and the GLA to tackle touting, the statistics for convictions, fines and enforcement operations paint an inexplicably bright picture of the situation. I don’t share this optimistic view of events as the operations are having no discernible effect and, in my opinion, it is actually a lack of enforcement that has allowed their activities to expand virtually unhindered. I believe the main reason that touting is so prevalent is because they are confident that they can act with impunity. I also believe that the situation will only get worse whilst the benefits of engaging in this type of criminality far outweigh the risks.
The situation is all the more frustrating for the Licensed Taxi driver as the touts operate in the same place, at the same time every day. This gives the impression that their presence is at least tolerated, perhaps even condoned.
The result of this lack of enforcement can clearly seen at, to name a few, clubs like Abacus on Cornhill, Angels on Wardour Street, Smiths on Charterhouse Street, Mahiki on Dover Street, Shoreditch House on Ebor Street, Embargo on the Kings Road and the OXO Tower on Barge House Street. I have regularly seen streets blocked by their high numbers where they cause congestion and noise pollution, restrict access for the emergency services and ignore parking regulations.
Despite their best efforts, the TOCU Cab Enforcement Unit has never been large enough to deal with a problem of this scale. In September 2008 Mayor Johnson pledged to double the number officers in the TOCU Cab Unit to 68, however I have heard recently that even this small number of posts has not been fully recruited. If this is true then the situation is making a mockery of his Safer Travel at Night Campaign and his assertion that their operations are “despicable activities” and the touts “stain our city”. The Mayor’s Safer Travel at Night Campaign was launched to help reduce the risks of travelling after an evening out. However, a significant and increasing number of my colleagues are now reluctant to work nights, particularly at weekends, because of the aggressive and devious tactics of the touts. Lack of action against them is ensuring that Licensed Taxi drivers, regarded by most as the safest form of travel, may become more difficult to find for the late night traveller.
In complete contrast to this unlawful behaviour, Licensed Taxi drivers have continued to act professionally and have not reacted to mounting intimidation, despite our obvious frustration. I fear that this situation will not last for ever. Meaningful enforcement would reduce the chance of these situations escalating into something much more serious.
I have read the ‘Tackling Taxi Touting’ report produced by Transport for London’s Surface Transport Panel, dated 24th February 2009. This document acknowledges that touting is a problem. However, the frequent misuse of the word ‘Taxi’ in the report is part of the problem. The document does not clearly distinguish between a Licensed
Taxi and a vehicle (Minicab or private car) acting illegally. If the body tasked to tackle touting does not recognise that there is only one type of Taxi, and that is a Licensed Taxi, then the process of educating the public to avoid using touts will prove very difficult.
The frustration at the lack of enforcement by the Police is being compounded by lack of action by Enforcement Officers. The touts regularly ignore parking restrictions yet, as with their criminal activity, they generally remain unimpeded. For instance, illegal minicabs regularly double park causing congestion and delays to bus
services. The touts also park in Taxi ranks and rarely move when asked. This happens on ranks all over the city. Recently the rank outside Tiger Tiger in Haymarket has been a particular hotspot for this type of activity.
To add insult to injury, Licensed Taxis were recently given PCN’s for using this rank in Haymarket. The Enforcement Officer refused to read the plate describing the rank and issued the tickets despite the protestations of the drivers. If Enforcement Officers do not understand how to identify a Taxi rank then how can we expect those
who are abusing them to accept that these ranks are for Licensed Taxis only?
The sight of Taxi touts harassing tourists is undoubtedly detrimental to the image of London as a tourist destination. The poor ‘service’ they provide and the extortionate prices they charge can only result in tourists feeling they have been ripped-off. This situation is made worse by the continued ambiguous use of the word ‘Taxi’. The harm caused by a visitor returning home and describing the poor quality of London ‘Taxis’ to other potential visitors is difficult to quantify, but it must be damaging the reputation of the Licensed Taxi Trade.
The current financial downturn has highlighted what a foothold the touts have established and I am deeply concerned that they have become an accepted part of city life. I believe that all the relevant authorities must act now against those who exhibit contempt for the law and the history and tradition of the Licensed Taxi trade.
I think that it is time that the scale of the problem was acknowledged and appropriate resources allocated to the TOCU Cab Enforcement Unit, at the very least the unit should be fully recruited to 68 officers. I also believe if the touting problem was given a higher priority it could easily be removed from our streets. If the touts knew that they were likely to face prosecution then they may be reluctant to continue.
Owners of private vehicles can have their vehicles confiscated and crushed if they do not hold valid insurance. If this tactic was employed against the touts, who invalidate their insurance when they pick up a passenger, then they may consider the risk of offering their ‘services’ too great.
Enforcement Officers and CCTV cameras would be used to identify the touts, particularly at any hotspots. If the touts were fined regularly for contravening parking regulations then their operation would become uneconomic and they would have no reason to continue. Similarly, if it were difficult for them to park illegally then it would be very tough for them to operate. The very nature of their ‘business’ forces them to wait outside bars and clubs where there are often parking restrictions and/or Taxi ranks.
If Licensed Taxi drivers had unrestricted access to Taxi ranks, particularly outside clubs, then the touts would be a less convenient option for travellers. This tactic would be more effective if all Enforcement Officers were able to identify a rank and when it was operational.
If all the relevant authorities, particularly the PCO, used the word ‘Taxi’ correctly then the travelling public would be able to make an informed choice about their travel options. The word ‘Taxi’ should only be used when referring to a Licensed Taxi. Equally, Minicab companies should be prevented from using the word Taxi when describing the service they provide.
I believe that the time has come to act decisively against the people who lack the commitment and determination to complete the Knowledge of London, yet continue to act as if they are a legitimate part of the city’s transport network. The alternative is to carry on as now and wait until the Olympic games in 2012, when, I think I can safely assume that, you would be deeply concerned to hear that the ‘services’ of touts were being offered to Olympic officials.
If you consider these ‘services’ to be inappropriate for Olympic officials then I urge you to act now and demonstrate that you think they similarly unsuitable for our residents, workers and visitors.
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