Mind Your Language

(Original edit of latest article for Taxi magazine. The version in this week’s mag has been “toughened up” by the editor, and is a lot different).

Mind Your Language

I fear I might have been too sympathetic to the plight of our private hire friends recently. I hit out at operators lowering their fares and hiking up company commission; and I generally supported the drivers’ industrial action against exploitation. Only a few weeks’ later my sympathy wilted when I read they were getting into a tizz over TfLs tightening of licensing requirements.
One complaint is that they have to buy and display proper insurance certificates. August’s PHC magazine looks at TfLs “controversial” decision and asks why PH drivers should carry Hire & Reward insurance even when they are not carrying passengers. It seems many PH drivers resent paying out for insurance when they are on holiday, or when they are not using their school run vehicles over the summer holidays. Steve Wright, Chairman of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, calls the insurance issue “discriminatory” and “massively unfair.” My first reaction was that business must be good if drivers can take a month or two off to visit relatives in other parts of the world, or enjoy twelve weeks’ off by working to the school timetable.
But it’s reasonable for drivers to make extended visits to their homelands, and I don’t doubt that they put the hours in for the larger part of the year. The insurance issue is blamed on a taxi trade tantrum. The taxi trade undoubtedly brought the issue to attention, after shock at discovering that continuous Hire & Reward insurance for private hire drivers wasn’t already law, and that PH drivers could turn insurance off and on before the new legislation came in. There are plenty of part-time taxi drivers, and plenty who spend long periods abroad visiting relatives. Can drivers claim an insurance rebate for their fortnight in Spain? Similarly, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suspend your road fund licence, breakdown cover, or residents’ parking permits, for a short period. Theoretically, no-one should need Hire & Reward insurance when we’re not carrying passengers. This could include when we’re driving in and out of our licensing area if we live outside London, and when we’re cruising for work or on ranks. I understand the desire for flexibility, but car insurance isn’t something that you can opt in and out of. If insurance becomes flexible, you get into many grey areas, and it becomes more open to abuse. It would be an administrative nightmare, and would most likely start to cost more. PH drivers can make savings elsewhere: apart from the vehicle itself, they save £200 a year by using their phone as a meter.
PHC’s feature warns that drivers will be antagonised and may break the rules. If PH cars had to display their insurance like we do, it would be easier for Compliance Officers or the Police to check they’re operating safely and legally. Maybe this is what some are afraid of; that when they sit outside St Pancras or on their unofficial ranks, they are on offer to the authorities.
In the age of computers, anyone can knock up a genuine-looking insurance certificate, and send a photocopy to a PH operator. Alternatively, you could genuinely take out Hire and Reward insurance, then cancel it once the certificate’s been checked. You could then take out a cheaper leisure-use policy, or just carry on with nothing and hope for the best. I’m not sure if these practices are widespread, but it’s certainly been done.
Dodgy documents are best produced by criminals who have a grasp of English. TfL will soon be testing PH applicants’ understanding of English, and this is another objection we’ve heard recently. I don’t think a driver’s English has to be perfect, but it should be good enough to discuss destinations and routes. This is reasonable and the minimum that the public should expect. In the language issue it’s not just the drivers’ grasp of English we need to think about, it’s also the customers. Often, a foreigner’s use of English is better than a native speaker. We’ve all come across folk born and bred on these shores to whisper, mumble, and slur; and miss-pronounce words out of all proportion. We have to deal with a lot of strange accents, British and foreign. I consider myself to have a good grasp of English, but I can’t understand everybody. An English test will help though, as it’ll give drivers a fighting chance of understanding most people, particularly when customers mumble about a changed destination half way through a journey.
From October, PH operators have to provide TfL with their drivers’ photos and National Insurance number. Again, I presumed this was being done anyway. It sounds to me that things have been very slack since PH was officially licensed, and the drivers and operators have got used to doing what they want. This isn’t the fault of private hire; it’s the fault of the licencing authority that’s let standards slip. Now, when they decide to raise standards and protect the public; it’s too much of a shock to the system. The private hire industry provides a flexible way of making a living. The taxi trade is more highly regulated, but in essence it’s just as flexible. We’re talking about standards and public safety here, and flexibility can only go so far.

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