End of the road for the rogue minicabs

Love them or hate them, minicabs are often a lifeline back home for late-night revellers, but will new laws make them safer?
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SOHO - THE 24-hour nerve-centre of London - is buzzing. It's Friday night, and the streets are crammed with tourists, theatre-goers, drinkers and clubbers. For now, the tubes are running, the shows are rolling, the drinks are flowing and spirits are high. Over the course of the next few hours, the fever will cool down and people will head home. For those who can't face the wait for a night bus and can't find a black taxi, the only option is a minicab. Disliked, mistrusted and reviled by many, they are the only way home for most.

The office of Bateman Cars is, in fact, the pavement. People come to the booth window, much as they might approach a parked ice-cream van on a street corner, to place their order. "It works well," says the boss, Francis, perched on his high stool in the booth with a clipboard in his hand. "People come to me, order their taxi and then hang around outside."

It's nearing 11pm, and the first wave of tired theatre-goers will soon arrive. Before the onrush, I talk to a lone woman waiting on the pavement. "I always use minicabs," says Susie, a local shop owner. "I have no qualms about taking them alone. Once, I was on my own, in a bad part of town, when this car pulled up alongside me. The driver offered me a lift, saying he was a minicab. At first I refused but, after a bit of persuasion, I got in. The guy drove me to my door, made sure I was safely in the house before he left, and charged me the right fare. That minicab was a life- saver."

Minicabs are often cheap, but not always safe. This year, 29 women have reported attacks by minicab drivers - five of those attacks were rapes, 24 indecent assaults. Legislation, brought in earlier this month to regulate the London minicab industry (which will bring it into line with the rest of the country), was long overdue.

"Minicabs are a joke," protest Christine and Alison, two women waiting for a driver, who are growing increasingly impatient with the delay. "You wait for ages for one to turn up, then they take forever to get you home. Also, you never know how much they're going to charge. When you get in, it's pounds 10 and, by the time you're home, the price has gone up to pounds 15." Catching the edge of our conversation, a young hairdresser adds: "Most of the minicab drivers are foreign, don't know London, can't drive and barely speak English."

As the Minister for Transport, Glenda Jackson pointed out after the enactment of The Private Hire (London) Vehicles Bill on 28 July: "The anomaly - that London is the only city in Britain where minicabs are allowed to trade without any form of regulation - has lasted far too long. I hope this [legislation] finally puts an end to the unacceptable dangers and uncertainty that passengers currently have to face when travelling by minicab in London".

According to the Department of Transport, under the new law, all minicab drivers will be checked for criminal records. They will have to prove that they have appropriate knowledge of London, and general topographical skills. The drivers will need three years' driving experience with a full licence, and will have to be at least 21. They will have to wear a badge showing that they are licensed, and their cars will probably have a visible registration plate on, as well as in, the car.

Drivers caught soliciting will be prosecuted immediately, as will those carrying passengers without an official registration. Minicabs will only be able to transport passengers who have phoned in advance or visited an office. The legislation will ensure that potential passengers are in no doubt as to whether the car they are about to get into is an official, or a rogue, minicab. For Sir George Young, who nurtured the legislation from its conception, this is a personal triumph. "Black market minicab operators will hopefully be driven out of business. All those minicabs without a licence, MOT, insurance or tax won't survive. At the same time, those who run a legitimate business will gain from helping the authorities rid London of the unlicensed firms."

In his Soho booth, Francis, finding a moment to talk after the post-pub closing-time rush, insists he welcomes the new legislation. "I'm happy. Hopefully, this will clean up the trade and salvage minicabs' reputation."

A young couple who have spent the evening in the pub, join in. "You read a story about a woman being raped by a minicab driver, and suddenly every minicab should be burned," says the man. "Well I don't agree. You get good cops and bad cops; you can't just lump them all together."

"That's right," says his girlfriend. "You just have to be sensible. Minicabs are an alternative, cheaper taxi service. If you use them when it suits you, and don't just hop into the first car that comes along, there's no reason why anything should go wrong. Most of these guys are really hard- working and friendly."

At half-past midnight, the streets are busier than ever. As I watch the crowd traipsing along Old Compton Street, I can't help thinking of Wembley Walk after an international, and all those hordes of fans slowly marching towards the same point.

Two women who work for a London hotel are waiting patiently for their cab to arrive. They are not bothered by the reported 10,000 rogue minicabs roaming the capital. "Let's face it, we're all very grateful for minicabs in general," points out Emma. "If the new Act is going to rid the streets of the minicabs that hassle you outside pubs and clubs, then great. But it shouldn't target firms like this one."

"It may not be a limousine service," interjects her friend, "but it's efficient, friendly, cheap and reliable. If it wasn't for them, you simply wouldn't get home on a Friday and Saturday night."

Part of the recent problems are, undeniably, a direct consequence of the total lack of black cabs in busy areas of London. "In the daytime, you can't get enough black cabs, but at night forget it. They simply aren't around," bark a young London couple - almost in unison - who have been drinking late in Soho House, a drinking club favoured by television people. "And if one does miraculously drive through a crowded neighbourhood," insists the man, "it probably won't stop, or the driver will tell you which way he's heading, which may or may not take him past your house."

The Metropolitan police don't believe there is a need for more black cabs. Their view is that "regulation of the minicab trade is the best way in which to ensure travellers' safety, and we welcome the legislation which aims to do this".

If minicabs were licensed properly and started patrolling the streets during the day, public confidence would grow.

It's almost half-past two, the crowds have ebbed, and the few ambling pedestrians left in Soho seem to be in no rush to go anywhere in particular. Having survived nearly five hours of Soho madness, I gladly accept Francis's offer of a cab home. "Fulham," he says to one of the drivers poised at the street corner. "Nine pounds, regular client," he barks.

I climbed in the back, knowing I would get home safely.