Although black cab drivers have to register with police, undergo rigorous knowledge tests, keep cabs regularly tested for roadworthiness and properly insured, there are no such regulations covering minicabs.
The Department of Transport has published a consultation paper on the future of taxi and private hire firms in England and Wales, while the Transport Select Committee has called for new legislation to cover minicabs in London.
Steven Norris, London's transport minister, is keen to tackle the problem. If he accepts the committee's recommendations, laws could be brought in to ban drivers with a criminal record for sex
offences; to only allow drivers over 21 with three years' experience and a clean driving licence; and force vehicles to undergo a special MoT test every six months.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which campaigns for women's safety, welcomed the Transport Select Committee report. 'We have struggled for six years to get minicabs regulated in London and to make them safe,' said a spokesman.
Research by the Trust shows that passengers suffer twice as many 'distressing incidents in minicabs as black cabs.
Incidents including verbal or physical assaults have been experienced by one in four passengers, they say.
Local authorities are responsible for licensing cabs. They are able to obtain the criminal records of cab drivers and those who fail to reveal convictions can be suspended and penalised. But in London no such rules apply, because of legal anomalies.
Thirty per cent of minicab firms will go out of business if the new legislation comes in, according to Kathy Connelly, Lewisham council's women and safety officer. The council runs a minicab safety awareness campaign and has a code of conduct for firms.
'Minicabs are becoming part of the public transport
system, particularly for women at night,' said Ms Connelly. 'But quite often they get into vehicles that are not properly insured or are unroadworthy.'
Although there have been very few incidents of women being attacked, there was a rape three years ago by a man posing as a minicab driver.
Lewisham council distributes leaflets to pubs, nightclubs and bingo halls advising people not to get into minicabs unless they are fully satisfied that the driver - and the car - are safe.
Handicars is a cab company that has been operating in Lewisham for 27 years. Terry Bevis, its chairman, has introduced photo identity tags which drivers must wear or face instant dismissal and he has installed a special computer programme which alerts him immediately if a driver's insurance has expired.
He makes regular checks on every driver's licence and will only allow drivers to use cars less than four years old. The one thing he cannot do is to check on a driver's criminal record.
'The present situation, with London minicabs the only taxi service in the country not subjected to regulations, is ludicrous, he said. 'Handicars
handles 10,000 calls a week, but there are no regulations. On a train, a bus, or the Tube there are some controls, but not for minicabs.'
Part of the problem has been the powerful black cab lobby, which argues that minicabs will take away their trade. But 90 per cent of black cab work is from fares picked up on the street; minicabs are not allowed to ply for business.
Mr Bevis is as keen as black cab drivers to get rid of the cowboys who give his business a bad name.
Meanwhile, Lewisham council advises customers to use a company recommended by a friend; check the driver's identity before getting into the cab; avoid giving personal information to the driver; ask the company to ring you once the cab arrives. 'If you are at all unhappy, don't get in,' advises Kathy Connelly.
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