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Exclusive: TaxiPoint meets Caroline Pidgeon

9 Aug 2017

 

Caroline Pidgeon is one of the mainstays of City Hall, in fact it's hard to imagine City Hall functioning without her presence being felt somewhere in the building, beavering away on behalf of London and its inhabitants in some capacity or another. A very amiable and accomodating figure we at TaxiPoint are very priveliged to have been granted a Q&A with Caroline.

 

Good Afternoon Caroline, my first question is:- How long have you been in the political arena and how did you start out? 

I've been at City Hall for 9 years as a Londonwide assembly member. Prior to that I was a councillor for 12 years in the London Borough of Southwark, I used to be deputy leader of the council and I used to lead on childrens services. I was first elected in 1998 so I've completed nearly 20 years service. 

Do you see yourself for running for mayor again at some point?

We shall have to see, I think it's quite hard to run a campaign with a small child but we shall see what happens, there may be other keen people who wish to run. We ran a good campaign last time but unfortunately we didnt get the votes we needed. Its hard to run a campaign across the whole of London, during our previous campaign we were stronger in some parts of London than others.  

Do you have any ambitions of running for the Lib-Dem leadership at some point in your career?

I'm not entitled to run for the Lib-Dem leadership as only MPs can be party leader. I could run for party president if I wanted to but that's not going to happen. I love London, I'm focused on London, thats my job and I love it and I'm proud to serve London, I've led on transport for the last 9 years and I'm proud to do that. 

 

Do you find that your duties within the GLA and with the Lib Dems in general have a somewhat detrimental impact on your family and social life or do you find that you are able to manage your work/life balance equally well?

Monday to Friday I do a normal working week, 9am to 5pm. I have to be strict as I have to juggle family commitments, I also do 1 or 2 evenings a week and some weekends depending on any given issue. It's probably a healthier balance than being an MP because you have so much stuff to deal with in the evening and all of your weekends from your constituency to parliament.

Can you give an insight as to what your specific duties are as Deputy Chair of The London Assemblies Transport Committee and generally what powers do you and your department possess ?

Our job is to hold the Mayor and Transport for London to account for their services which includes the Mayors transport strategy, we also raise anything that is of general concern to Londoners. We look at train operators and all of the transport providers in the capital. We also have some responsibility for Travelwatch, which is a travel watchdog that we fund in London. At the moment there is a lot of strategy work, the Mayor has just published his draft transport strategy, we assess as to whether we think he has the right vision, priorities, things that we would like to see changed. It's also about looking at the big issues, things like Futureproof and the future of the taxi and private hire industry, we have a report on bus safety coming out and how we can make buses safer, also how we can make cycling safer. Sometimes we will produce a full report and sometimes we will write to the Mayor with 2 or 3 recommendations. 

Does the Mayor or TFL have a duty to respond to any recommendations?

The Mayor and TFL do respond to any recommendations, whether they take on board what we suggest is another matter. Our big report on congestion, the Mayor does set out some of the challenges in his strategy and says these things should be considered but doesn't actually say I'm going to remedy this issue by this time, which is disappointing really. On the whole we do manage to influence the transport agenda an awful lot but we don't always get credit for it as an assembly. As an example the Mayor took credit for the hopper fare initistive, yet it has been my policy and a Lib-Dem policy for over a decade. That however is where we can influence the transport agenda, you have an idea, you keep pushing it and eventually it becomes part of transport policy, Boris liked it but didn't want to commit money to it, Sadiq has taken it and put it in place so we can influence but we don't always get the credit for it. 

 

What would you say the reasons are for the bus network running at a loss? 

Most bus services across the country need a subsidy, I think the challenge we are seeing with bus fares falling in London is because buses are not reliable enough, theres a huge challenge with serious congestion on London's roads. Why would you take a bus where a journey that used to take 15 minutes when it's now taking 30 or 40 minutes, people find other routes or options. An example of this is the Elephant and Castle, whilst there was extensive works taking place you would sit in that congestion once and then avoid it like the plague afterwards.....and this would apply to car drivers and taxi drivers too. There are plans looking at the Mayors strategy to move some buses from Inner London and Central London to Outer London where there is more demand and with Crossrail coming that makes a lot of sense.

 

Will the Crossrail network be completely serviced by the Oyster Card system and how much does it cost to administer the Oyster Card system?

Yes, Crossrail will be serviced by the Oyster Card system so far as I am aware. It costs 10p in every pound to do the administration and processing whereas if you use your contactless debit card it costs less than a penny for the administration. This is why debit card payment is incentivised. A weekly cap comes in on you bank card that doesnt come in on your oyster card.

Will the Oyster Card system ever be linked to the Taxi network? 

Its highly unlikely due to the prohibitive cost of installing the equipment.

There have been some serious issues surrounding the credit card systems in the rear of taxis such as siting of the system, network failures and customer issues. Is it time for TfL to officially allow the use of a secondary system of the drivers choosing in the front of the vehicle?

If it's not working then they (TfL) need to review it, it was one of our recommendations and passengers wanted it. When we did our report on Futureproof we did survey passengers as well and they said they wanted it (credit card systems in taxis), and likewise with our recent report on congestion we did survey Londoners who said that they supported road-pricing if it meant freeing up some of the congestion on the streets and trying to get people to shift how they move around the city. I do think the current credit card situation needs to be considered and reviewed because I know there are some concerns on the tightness of the rules around it. I think its great that all taxi drivers are taking cards as well as using apps, it makes things a lot more convenient for passengers. I'm happy to send a very clear request from the industry to review this.

 

Do you believe that the diesel to zero emission taxi switchover has enough infrastructure development in progress to lead to a successful switch. There are 24,300 Licensed London taxis in operation, how would you respond to the concerns of the Taxi industry surrounding vehicular range given that the most advanced fully electric taxi has a 100 mile range and takes 30 minutes to implement a fast charge?

I do have concerns, I'm very supportive of the new vehicle, I think the electric vehicle with the petrol back-up in it will be good for drivers, the new vehicle is very comfortable to drive so I'm told from other drivers and its a beautiful vehicle. It's got so many plus points to it, but my concerns are the cost, even with a subsidy it's still going to cost a lot. I have pushed the previous Mayor and this Mayor to look at doing a bulk purchase using TfL capital to be able to bring the price down and to then be able to sell them on to garages who rent them out or to sell them on to drivers, I've pushed Sadiq on that and I will again. Unless you have got the infrastructure right then it is going to be very hard. It's a big gamble moving over from diesel, you want to see it properly tested, at the moment it is about half an hour to get that boost in the day but actually that may be good because it makes you have that break that you need. Some of the drivers I have spoken to are driving 12 to 14 hours a day, so to make you have that break, have something to eat and take some time away from the traffic may be a good thing. Technology is improving all the time so I'm sure you will get to a stage where you will be able to charge the vehicle very quickly. My main concern is to make sure the subsidy is right so that these vehicles are competitive. Ultimately I believe these vehicles will be far better for the industry because they will be cheaper to run, in turn this will make taxis more competitive to the consumer.

Would it be prudent to place multiple charging points on every single rank in London?

I think you need to look at the ranks, key sites such as those near cafes, I've also said there needs to be points sited on the edge of bus garages where taxi drivers can securely leave their taxis. It needs to be planned with drivers so as to work out where the best places are to site the charge points.

There seems to be a very fractious relationship between TfL and the Taxi industry, how do you respond to this?

I've been very concerned for a long time as to how the trade are consulted and who TfL choose to recognise as representatives, I'm  also concerned at the many drivers who don't belong to any organisation but have views that wish to be heard. I had hoped with the new Mayor and Val as the Deputy Mayor and Mike Brown that there was going to be a real turning point, hearing that Mike Brown has cancelled a meeting for the third time, (I'm sure he had his reasons) I don't think that is good enough. I do think it's important that Mike Brown and others hear the trades issues otherwise things can escalate and you can get the wrong impression from both sides and I think that sometimes you may have more in common than you don't and unless you are talking together you dont realise that.

Why under Boris Johnson's tenure was Peter Anderson an individual who's company was a major investor in uber allowed to have any sort of input on the Taxi Industries meter and on TFLs board?

Peter Anderson would have had to declare any interest in Uber and wouldn't have been allowed any input in relation to taxis fares.

Will TfL be engaging in some form of trade promotion?

The Mayor has a so called Taxi action plan but I dont think it goes far enough. Lots of the commitments in it are due this summer for some sort action so I will be following that up with the Mayor and asking where are the actions on this. I ask hundreds of questions about taxis and private hire issues that concern taxi drivers and others in the wider industry and I will continue to press the Mayor.

The Mayor has made a number of commitments to the Taxi Industry, commitments such as extra Taxi ranks, access to almost all of London's bus lanes to name but 2, yet there seems to be a major delay in the implementation of any concessions to the trade, is there a reason behind this? When will Taxi drivers be allowed to use all of the bus lanes as promised by Sadiq Khan?

I believe that they may have to change some sort of traffic order to allow taxis to use some of the bus lanes but TfL don't control all of the bus lanes, some bus lanes are under borough control. Some of the bus lane restrictions including London Bridge make no sense and taxis should have access to all of the lanes across London . I am concerned about Transport for London, they're under huge financial pressure both capital-wise and financial-wise, the Mayor has chosen to freeze fares and that is a huge source of revenue gone at a time where he wants to do all of these things but I dont know where the money is for them. There has been a clear-out of lots of senior staff and others but that does leave holes and vacuums and people applying for jobs.

Given this financial Black hole do you see this as part of the reason that we are seeing between 400 and 600 private hire vehicles licensed every week which amounts to approximately a £9 million per annum industry?

I believe the money is all ring-fenced, anything that comes through the licensing of taxis or private hire is ring-fenced on administration and enforcement.

A couple of hundred new compliance officers have been put on the streets of London.....and yet very few are warranted officers, they have been described as a tiger with no teeth, also they seem to be devoid of some of the basic legal knowledge surround taxi and private hire legislation, how do you respond to this?

I've put a question in to the Mayor about that as they need to be able to operate without the police. All of the compliance officers do need to be properly briefed and trained, of course, it will take a little time for them to be brought up to speed but they do need some intensive training and knowledge of the law so that they know what action can be taken. The increase of compliance officers is however a good thing and it is something that we had recommended.

Do you feel that TFLs disability policies are fairly implemented by TFL Taxi and PH in relation to medical issues surrounding drivers?

TfL will have some sort of medical guidance around passenger safety and driver safety but overall there shouldn't be any discrimination.

Disruptive or destructive? Do you feel that Uber have destabilised a stable and flourishing market to its detriment and do you feel that if both the government and TFL don't act swiftly then we will end up with a countrywide monopolistic entity running the entire PHV sector with the Taxi sector wiped out?

Uber have gone into cties around the world and wiped out all competition, then they hike up fares, thats what they do and they've got the capital behind them to be a loss-leader. I'm very happy for passengers to have a choice between a taxi or a private hire vehicle but what I want is the passenger to know its a safe choice and I have huge concerns to do with various things in relation to Uber, from insurance to the amount of hours drivers can drive without the app being turned off and also how much those drivers are being paid, I personally do not wish to support that kind of industry. There are good private hire operators out there that have the proper insurance and do good training for their staff and so it is seen as a real profession so i do think the Mayor should have the power to cap, how you bring that in is tricky but you need to be able to cap and you need to be able to manage the market as is done with taxis in the suburban sectors where areas have been saturated, TfL simply stop issuing any more licenses. The Government has got to help put legislation through, if not the Mayor himself needs to develope a bill to put through parliament which he does have the power to do.

That being the case why is Sadiq Khan devolving responsibility to Chris Grayling and why is Chris Grayling devolving responsibility back to Sadiq Khan like some political football.

The Mayor and Chris Grayling have no relationship which is not good for any form of transport in London. There is buck passing going on, I asked the mayor a question in relation to the way apps are being used as there is some concern there and the Mayor has said he is talking to the Department for Transport about the next iteration of a survey etc and then we asked the same question to the Department for Transport and again they just passed it back to TfL.. They are very much passing the buck between them when they should be working together, we do need to modernise the regulations.

 

Why are TFL still insisting that PHV drivers must take an enhanced driving test when The DVLA scrapped the enhanced test earlier this year?

That needs to be looked at because there are issues with the quality of driving, I myself was behind a private hire driver recently and I thought you are all over the place and I wouldnt want to be in there, you're a danger. I really think that we do need to improve the quality of driving.

Serious driving offences are seemingly ignored by TFL when clear evidence is presented to them as well as allegations of inadequate insurance being rife within the PHV industry, how do you respond?

With hire and reward insurance the idea that all private hire drivers should have fleet insurance is absolutely the way forward. Some of the correspondence from number 10 hugely lobbying TfL and the Mayor about the consultation on changing some of the regulations I think is a huge concern. I have a case with the Information Commissioner at the moment looking at the FOIs that number 10 denied having any knowledge of and that TfL then released, so that is something that I am raising but there has been undue influence from number 10, particularly in the past. This is now going up to another level and im hoping we may start to see some progress.

Do you see number 10s influence in relation to Uber as part of a wish to see the gig economy expand rather than an attack on the taxi and private hire industry?

I think it probably is, i think it was probably an idealogical push but there are consequences to everything and the gig economy may be exciting but if im going to decide that im going to have a private hire vehicle pick me up from home and take me to work where perhaps I have taken the bus in the past and if lots of other people then do that and we are suddenly clogging up the roads then it has a negative impact on the public. Of course there is a place for technology and of course passengers need a safe choice but I think that there has been undue influence and given that this is a licensing function its rather inappropriate for such influence to have been exacted

The current DBS arrangements are woefully inadequate where both Taxis and PHV are concerned, are there plans to improve on this?

The DBS process shouldn't have been taking the amount of time that it has been taking and that is a general issue, and a huge one, however TfL do need to look at issuing temporary licenses with greater regularity for taxi drivers and there needs to be a tightening up of the DBS process for private hire drivers as there are too many anomolies in there, such as letters from embassies which in effect circumvent the system and that isn't right. We need proper checks to make sure passengers are safe.

That being the case would it not make sense that no new prospective private hire driver could obtain a PHV license without holding a full UK driving License for a minimum of 3 years so that this the allows the DBS to do the relevant back-checks?

There's lots of different ways around it but it does need to be tightened up as the public need to have the confidence in knowing that they are going to be safe.

 

Is TfLs complaints system fit for purpose, bearing in mind that TfL devolve responsibility for private hire complaints back to the operator?

We have asked within the Futurproof report for a centralised system for private hire complaints but there does need to be some sort of system in place. one of the biggest complaints within the private hire industry is discrimination against people who have assistance dogs which is against the law regardless of faith and there has been some very high profile cases surrounding that issue,. I believe that there is more that TFL can do if it was properly managed centrally.

When will the Taxi and PHV figures regarding accidents and criminal activity be separated off?

I'm trying to get the figures and the Mayor promised to split them off in the spring, we are now in the summer, i'm pushing to get them as soon as possible because you do need to split them but given the huge number of private hire i do expect the figures to be far higher for private hire.

Finally, given the current situation surrounding the Taxi industry and the PHV industry many in the Taxi industry dont see a 350 year old profession surviving because of TFLs policies....How do you respond to this?

The Mayor has got to make some bold decisions in the area of regulation, capping private hire. Technology does play a role for taxis and private hire and there is a benefit there so you have to make sure that its all regulated tightly. Also the Mayor has to bring in road-pricing in London then you will free up road space and everybody will be able to move more freely. Also the new taxi and getting the price right will make you more competitive. The Mayor has got to be tough when you have company like Uber who will take you to court if you so much as do anything is very difficult, the Mayors administration are being very quiet on things because they are being sued the whole time and have to be very careful in everything that they say. All in all I am highly optimistic that there is future for the taxi trade.

 

Caroline thank you very much for allowing me to take up your time

 

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