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DR MIKE GALVIN: If national taxi standards are the answer... what was the question?


Taxi image credit: Ross Campbell

The Taxi and Private Hire industry is facing more upheaval when parliamentary time becomes available to legislate for national standards.


IF NATIONAL STANDARDS ARE THE ANSWER... WHAT WAS THE QUESTION?


Humans have an endearing feature whereby a simple slogan is grasped and adopted as a great idea with little or no real consideration of what the implications actually are. The Government has committed that it ‘will take forward legislation when time allows to enable these’ [minimum national standards]. So great, here we go then ‘National Standards’ or is it ‘Minimum National Standards’ or as oxymorons go this is a great one ‘high minimum national standards’. Heaven knows what we are getting, what the implications actually are and whether they are a good idea or not. The bandwagon is rolling and national standards, minimum, high or low will provide a new utopia for the industry won’t it... er, haven’t we been here before?

CALL ME OLD FASHIONED – BUT WHAT PROBLEM ARE WE SOLVING?


It is probably a personal view but when does piecemeal legislation actually work? A quick tweak here, a little change there, an extra clause stuck on the end of some entirely different legislation has time and time again left industries fuming, helpful politicians with egg covered faces and policymakers trying to present to regulators a bodge up as a logical and sensible piece of ground-breaking legislation on which to build and develop regulation and actually enforce it. Dare I mention the Deregulation Act?


I believe that change had a lot to commend it but I am probably a lone voice and since the implications, unforeseen consequences and practice have come into view it has not only divided the industry but left it clamouring for another knee jerk solution... ABBA. How many bites at this apple do we want before we give it the level of scrutiny it rightfully deserves? Parliament is not going to set aside an annual allocation of parliamentary time for ‘the taxi and PH allocation rules bill’ debate and discuss it every year until the industry decides they like a particular version. No, instead we will find the door shut firmly in our faces every time we ask for another change and heaven forbid a complete overhaul of the legislation that governs us.


So why, as an industry, do we accept and even support at times this sloppy and poor approach to legislation? In fact, why is legislation seen as the natural answer whereas maybe within the current legislation and with some hard miles with regulators a better or even workable outcome could be achieved – why because there is no glamour in meeting the 300 or whatever licensing authorities, berating the LGA and generally trying to work with councils and others when a few high level and highly publicised meetings with Minister X and Lord Y is an option and a photo opportunity.

SO WHY IS THIS SITUATION ACCEPTED?


Why are we not engaged in important decisions that will impact every business in the industry? Why do trade associations think that a survey constitutes consultation and scrutiny, provides not only the answer but somehow legitimises the process and ultimately the policy? Would you make other decisions in this way?


The car showroom sends you a survey – do you want a new car Y/N? You tick yes. They take your car away and give you a new one – a Robin reliant... happy? A Bentley which you can’t afford... happy? A two-seater, an MPV or a pink pick-up truck... ok I’ll stop there but you get the concept. I think the causes and reasons are relatively straight forward – the industry is lethargic, often inept, not prepared to invest and prone to leave it to someone else. That ‘someone else’ doesn’t have the time, maybe the competence, the budgets or the energy to do what should be done and that is to critically examine what problem we are trying to solve, what the options are and what the implications and likely, and even unlikely consequences of each are. The

outcome is sadly inevitable.

WE EITHER ENGAGE OR WE TAKE THE CONSEQUENCES


The democratic process takes time, energy, often money, requires competence and lots of shoe leather and persuasion and engagement. New legislation can fundamentally change the rules of the game. The, if we are honest, forlorn search for the mythical level playing field in an uneven world and the constant ranting about potential judicial reviews and other nonsense to overturn every ‘mistake’ made, every stupid idea, many of which the industry championed or passively or even unknowingly acquiesced to, neither enhances our industry to policy makers nor does it make for a framework that is better suited to prevailing conditions. Short circuiting the process, a quick read at best, a survey, and the acquiescence or even support and then years of moaning, ranting and impotent threats is not a public policy strategy – no sir! Neither is the victim’s lament of ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’ or it would have been alright if they had applied the lazy catchall of ‘common sense’!


SO WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH ME?


Oh, nothing much, just your business, your income, your exit or whether you have anything to pass onto your kids - so not important really (sic). Folks, let’s wake up here. National Standards flow smoothly off the tongue but like any concept, like any bright idea and like any unifying policy (let’s get Brexit done and drain the swamp spring to mind) the devil is in the detail. Will national standards, high, low or whatever be good for the industry? I can put my hand up here and say clearly – I don’t know! So why don’t I know – because I don’t know what it means, I don’t know what the problem is we are solving and importantly I have not seen anyone start to consider what is wrong with what we have now and whether national standards actually solve whatever problems we perceive that we currently have and at the risk of being nerdy may I mention it... evidence! New legislation is always a risk – a nuance here, a poor interpretation there, an amendment or two and what we had before looked like the promised land in comparison. We need to risk assess any change. These are complex nuanced issues – if what we have is unworkable, wrecking businesses and importantly putting customers at risk change it – if not... maybe talk yourself off the ledge.


In the dim and distant past (the 80’s) when Westminster Council wanted to close Oxford Street and make it a pedestrian zone, I and a group of colleagues at the LTDA spent months looking at all sides of the argument, of the benefits to each stakeholder group, of the options, and after reaching a clear decision why it was bad for the London Taxi Industry and importantly other stakeholder groups including I might add the traders in Oxford Street, of critiquing and testing our arguments and then we spent months lobbying and away it went. The victory was not that we (by this time not just the taxi industry) had stopped it BUT that we were clear why it was a bad idea, what the alternatives and options were, and were able to authoritatively deliver those arguments and crucially evidence. We had also built incredibly strong alliances and positioned ourselves as an authoritative and evidence-based voice. Important for future challenges.


WHERE IS OUR EVIDENCE?


New legislation is not like going to the barbers for a quick trim to cheer yourself up. It is major surgery. Once in place it is not going away anytime soon. No one would normally undertake elective surgery without considering the options, the risks and maybe getting a couple of opinions. This is a big step and deserves serious consideration. Every business is one decision away from disaster – this is one big decision.


In many respects it has gone forward to Government because ‘we’ support it. Government will find time for legislation because it appears to be a problem that can easily be fixed and has some perceived public benefit in respect of safety. Meanwhile back on the farm I’m not sure that anyone has really given this much more than a cursory glance or a catchy title. And before anyone pipes up with the Task and Finish Group and with great respect to them, I am not talking about a few meetings where the goal was consensus on a basket of different agendas. I am talking about line-by-line scrutiny of detailed policy documents, of facilitated discussion of hard miles looking critically and as far as possible clinically at the options and potential outcomes. Who is gathering the evidence? I thought, he said and someone told me is not evidence. That is not happening and the industry does not have the infrastructure to make it happen. Neither, I will add, does the industry have the infrastructure to support the passage of any legislation through parliament – changes of this nature which are, make no mistake, fundamental to the industry’s future need constant lobbying, review of amendments, trade-offs and attention during its passage and implementation. That body does not exist in this industry.


SO WHAT DO WE DO?


National Standards are unlikely to go before parliament any time soon but that is no reason to leave it for another day. No one in the industry is busy at the moment and technology enables discussion. Rather than sit back, let it happen and then spend the rest of your career moaning and lamenting the change, now is the time to actually develop clear and well thought through policy proposals and come out with something that is a better fit or and let’s be really radical here decide that what we have is already a good fit and that legislation with all its risks is not worth it.


Although better/good fit might not sound much of an ambition you are highly unlikely to get legislation that works solely for your business – so a good fit to me is a good outcome. However, before any of that is considered, whoever will do this work should look carefully at the benefits and disbenefits of what is in place now - maybe it’s not perfect but is it a good fit? The best can be the enemy of the good – be careful what you wish for!

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