A ROW has broken out after several of Southampton’s cabbies starting displaying St George and Union Flag stickers proclaiming they were “English-speaking” drivers.

It follows complaints from passengers about the standard of spoken English of some of the taxi drivers in the city.

There have also been complaints from passengers about the use of satellite navigation devices and over-charging.

There are 267 hail-and-ride hackney carriage taxis in Southampton and a further 550 private hire vehicles.

It is thought that about a dozen cabbies have put the stickers on their taxis.

But trade representatives fear the stickers have racist undertones and have called for them to be removed.

Some of the drivers displaying them have already done so, but none of those approached by the Daily Echo wanted to comment.

Chairman of the Southampton cab section of Unite, Perry McMillan, said his ethnic minority members had been upset by the stickers.

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He said: “Surely all drivers speak English. If they don’t, what’s going on?

We just hope that licensing officers can investigate this and satisfy the trade that this isn’t the case.”

Ian Hall, chairman of the Southampton Hackney Association, half of whose 126 members are from an Asian background, said: “I don’t think drivers should have these stickers in the back of their cars, because I think it’s racist.

“If drivers have got these stickers, they need to take them down.”

Mr Hall said the night trade would “collapse”

without ethnic minority drivers, who were buying the majority of taxi plates as they had money more readily available, often by clubbing together.

The stickers issue was raised at a secret trade consultation meeting with Southampton City Council. The Daily Echo understands that civic chiefs would order stickers to be removed if official complaints were lodged by passengers.

A council spokesman said: “We will of course look into any complaints or concerns from members of public.

“People should contact the council and let us know if they see signs and stickers being used in taxis, particularly if they find them offensive.”

But Clive Johnson, chairman of Radio Taxis and the Southampton Trade Association, said: “These signs are not racial. They are a protest to the council, saying please make sure new drivers actually have command of the English language.

“There are a few guys going out there who cannot speak English and just bluff it. It doesn’t matter if they are Polish, Russian, French, Spanish, if they can’t communicate to passengers we have to take that as problem.”

Anyone who wants to become a taxi driver must hold a British driving licence, pass a medical, undergo a criminal record check and complete a “knowledge” test of Southampton.

Council chiefs last year added a driving assessment and test in basic reading, writing and communication skills. A BTec qualification in Road Transport Passenger Driving must also be gained within six months.

Councillor Brian Parnell, chairman of the council’s licensing committee, said he hadn’t seen the stickers but insisted: “It is certainly not the image we want for Southampton.

“It is offensive to drivers from ethnic minorities who form a large part of the city's drivers and without whom Southampton’s taxi service would suffer.

“We want to promote harmony in the city. However, it is important that taxi drivers meet a certain set of standards and one of those standards is the ability to speak English.

“It is normal good practice for anyone working in another country to be able to speak the language of the country they are in.

“I think the problem is that many taxi drivers do speak English, but with a heavy accent that can be difficult to understand.”

Licensing panel member Councillor Don Thomas added: “Taxis and taxi drivers can be the first impression of Southampton for visitors.

“I personally think this is completely the wrong sort of message that we need for what is proudly a cosmopolitan city.”

Additional reporting by Will Carson