WHEN is a taxi not a taxi?
This was the question posed by a court case this week which saw Ravinder Roath and Manjit Singh fined £500 for picking up passengers in Southampton.
They were both licensed to operate as drivers, as long as they were booked by customers in advance.
But after the two men offered to give lifts to city council employees doing random checks, they were caught out and stung with a £500 fine, costs of £225 and a victim surcharge of £25 with six points on their licence.
The UK operates under a two-tier system in which hackney carriage, or taxi drivers, apply for a licence from their local authority which allows them to ply trade from the street or at taxi rank.
Drivers of private hire vehicles also apply for a licence, but their customers must book their journey in advance otherwise they are not insured.
So would it not be simpler to scrap our complicated taxi system and regulate both systems as one?
Zulfiqar Malik, owner of Door 2 Door Cars private hire firm, which has around 100 drivers in the city of Southampton, thinks so.
He said: “I personally think it should be all one, like it is in every other country in the world. We do the same job.
"If you get in a hackney cab and you’ve had a few drinks on a Friday night, it’s very hard for you to trace that car.
"We get a lot of phone calls from people saying they’ve lost their phone, but because it was in a hackney they’ve got no way of finding it again.
“Pre-booked is fine. The conflict arises when a customer books us to pick them up near a certain rank and then the hackneys are asking why we are turning up there.
The 40-year-old, who has been in the business for around 20 years, added: “I’d be happy if it was all just one system – it would make everyone more accountable.”
But chairman of the Southampton Hackney Association, Ian Hall, disagrees.
He said: “It boils down primarily to insurance. A private hire car cannot be hired from the street – they have an entirely different insurance structure. You have to work for a company and you can only get jobs through that company.
“As a hackney association we do have a major problem with enforcement, which costs money. It’s carried out by licensing officers and needs to be improved greatly, particularly at the weekends. It’s not an issue that you can’t get a taxi – there are 283 taxis in Southampton and nearly 700 private hires.
“Drivers will work for a company but if there isn’t enough work for them they’ll go for a break, switch their radio off and go around picking people up.
“The system is a good system but it needs to be marshalled properly.”
He said: “I think it would be a bad idea to abolish the distinction because private hire licensing and taxi licensing tend to be of two different orders.
"Taxis have a different function and there’s a higher standard of reliability on private hires. If you’ve got a cab coming up to you you’ve got to know it’s the right one.”
His Southampton Itchen counterpart, Conservative Royston Smith, a former head of licensing at Southampton City Council, said: “If you completely deregulate then you have less control but if you did it would have to be done slowly and seriously because we’d be bankrupting 250 small businesses – the chaps who have spent a small fortune on their licence plates. If you were starting from scratch then you could have one tier in my opinion but there is a market for booking and there is a market for flagging. The two do work. Otherwise it’s just not fair on the people who have paid a small fortune for their plate.”
Owner of Newtown-based private hire company Aero Taxis, Abdul Shafiq, gets the best of both worlds with half of fleet operating as private hires and half as hackney carriages.
He said: “When you get people coming off cruise liners and trains they’re in a rush – they don’t have time to call a cab and wait for them.
“Plus we don’t have the space on the streets for more ranks. There’s already a big problem – we’ve only got parking for a limited number.”
The 2014 Law Commission on Taxi and Private Hire Services recommended keeping the two tier system.
It said: “It is our view that this structure promotes consumer choice and the provision of a wide range of services. Furthermore, the different ways in which taxis and private hire vehicles are engaged make different levels of regulation appropriate, so that a single system would lead to over or under-regulation.”
It goes on to say that: “A customer pre-booking a private hire vehicle has more opportunity to shop around, comparing factors such as price, reliability and availability. The customer may also have a choice between relatively cheap (but still safe) services, or luxury, executive services.”
In 2012, UK households spent about £2.7billion on taxi and private hire journeys.
The first regulations of hackney carriages were introduced in the 1600s.
Private hire services legislation dates from 1976 in most of England and Wales and 1998 in London In Southampton the number of hackney carriage licences is restricted to 283