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Cabbies in revolt over imposition of 48-hour week

BY THE Great Plague burial pit next to Smithfield Market in London, William Hayter was outlining a prophecy of doom: a capital city where taxis are near-impossible to find and prohibitively expensive.

Mr Hayter, talking between sips of tea, was imagining what might happen if the European Commission goes ahead with plans to regulate taxi-drivers to a 48-hour week. "I'm sure a lot of the drivers would have to leave the business and the costs would inevitably be passed on to the customers," Mr Hayter said from the driver's seat of his taxi.

A typical four-mile journey now costs pounds 10 on a weekday. Fares could rise sharply under the proposed regulations.

Once, if a passenger desired an animated soliloquy from the driver, he would have to bring up the subject of immigrants, or cyclists. The latest pet hate, though, is the European Commission, which wants to bring taxi-drivers in line with other workers subject to an average maximum 48-hour week, and restrict the hours they can work at the most lucrative times of all, the evening shifts.

News of the plans is just reaching London's 17,000 licensed black-cab drivers and, according to those outside Beppe's Cafe by Smithfield Market, the result could be rather more tangible than a general upturn in front- seat xenophobia.

Under this nightmarish scenario, black-cab drivers would be more reluctant than ever to take passengers south of the river, thousands of cabbies would go out of business and, as fathers discourage sons from following in their tyre tracks, the basis of one of London's most enduring traditions would be jeopardised.

"You just wouldn't be able to afford to buy a new cab," said Aubrey Saffer, who has been driving taxis for 30 years. "Young people who don't own their own cabs and have mortgages to pay off would suffer the most; it just wouldn't be profitable." The cost of self- regulation, by attaching tacho-graphs to meters, and the attendant bureaucracy, would also be passed on to the passengers.

Black-taxi drivers are all self-employed, either owning or hiring their cabs and choosing their working hours to suit themselves.

Many, particularly younger drivers determined to make quick money, work more than 60 hours a week, much of it at the peak times of Friday and Saturday nights.

The average earnings for a London cabbie are pounds 12 to pounds 16 an hour. It is higher on lucrative journeys but is balanced out by time spent waiting at airports and stations or cruising at quiet periods.

With a new taxi costing pounds 28,000, and a five-year-old one costing pounds 190 a week to hire, with added maintenance costs, cabbing is not the lucrative trade it once was.

As Mr Saffer said: "It used to be a great trade but there are so many other ways celebrities and interesting people get around now. It's not what it was and I wouldn't advise my sons to do it. The regulations would make it even more difficult."