Leading Article: Wrong readings on the taxi meter

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YESTERDAY's report by the Commons transport committee on the regulation of taxis and minicabs shows how hard it can be to strike a balance between protecting consumers from danger or dishonesty, and forcing them to pay for unnecessary red tape. When rickety minicabs can be driven with impunity by uninsured ex- convicts, there is a clear need for reform. But the committee goes further than is necessary.

Its report proposes two tiers of regulation, with taxis and their drivers subject to tighter rules than minicabs on fares, appearance, maintenance and knowledge of the roads. This makes sense, given that competition for repeat custom helps to keep minicabs in line, while taxis have customers at their mercy on rainy days.

The report's most daring recommendation is to make it much harder for local councils to place arbitrary limits on the number of local black cabs. This reform, even if delayed a decade, will no doubt distress the cab drivers, some of whom bought licences from other drivers for up to pounds 40,000; but it will make cabs both cheaper and more plentiful for consumers.

The committee takes a wrong turn, however, in trying to enshrine the traditional London black taxi design as the only legal one. This quite unnecessary restriction would deliver handsome profits to the companies that monopolise its manufacture. It would also make taxi rides more expensive, since it would rule out the use of cheaper Japanese, American and German cars that seem to work perfectly well abroad.

Similar problems arise with the regulation of minicabs. Given their high average annual mileages, there is a case for requiring them to pass the MoT test quarterly instead of yearly - but no need for a wholly new test. Equally dubious is the proposed English exam, which could easily become a way of discriminating against immigrants.

These and other unnecessary regulations advocated in the report would force minicab companies to raise their prices. The committee would have done better to back the cheapest and most effective protection for the travelling consumer of taxis and minicabs alike: photo- cards for drivers, and a prominent sticker in several languages showing the hot-line telephone number on which to call the police or licensing authority in case of complaint.