The London black cab is one of the city’s symbols, occupied by outspoken drivers and able to turn on a six-pence. Last month, the company that makes them went back into production after being rescued by a Chinese corporation.
In time, the London Taxi Company, which has built 130,000 black cabs at its Coventry home over 60 years, will build 10 a day, five days a week. Some will drive the streets not of London, but of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Today, however, 200 of London’s existing 10,000 black cab-drivers – who must renew their licences every three years – are sitting idle; some since July, because of delays in getting criminal records’ clearances. Each week, the list is getting longer.
The dark shadows left by Ian Huntley, now serving a 40-year sentence for the brutal slayings in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham of two 10-year-old girls, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in 2002, live on.
Huntley had been given a job as a school caretaker, even though it emerged at his trial that he had been investigated in the past for a series of sexual offences, including rape and indecent assault.
Full vetting rules did not come in until after the Soham killings, but police were sharply criticised for failing to check what they could have checked under the rules that did exist.
Huntley had applied for the job at the local college under a different surname, Nixon; though he did disclose that fact, but the burglary charge on his record never came to the attention of police, or the school, either.
Following Huntley, it was ordered that “enhanced” investigations should be carried out – not just on whether people had ever been convicted, but whether they had ever come under police suspicion, and, if so, why.
Today, these checks, once carried out by the Criminal Records Bureau, are handled by the Disclosure and Barring Service – which insists that it handles three-quarters of them within a fortnight, and 90 per cent within a month. But some drag out for longer.
Steve McNamara of the London Taxi Drivers’ Association complains that he has spent three months trying to get the Home Office to pay attention. “They find it impossible to understand that self-employed people don’t get paid if they don’t work,” he said.
Delays have been common in the system since its foundation, he says, but it never mattered too much because the approvals when they came were sent directly to the drivers’ licensing authority, Transport for London (TfL)
"Because of that, TfL was prepared to issue a licence pending the arrival of the certificate a few weeks later because they knew that they would get it and that they could act if a problem had occurred with the driver," McNamara told The Irish Times.
Now, however, the approvals go directly to the person seeking clearance. The change has left TfL more cautious and has led them to refuse a licence renewal unless the driver can produce a new certificate.
“There are two problems for them. One, the driver might get and put it on the fridge and forget to send it in, or send it in late. Or, he could be refused and, therefore, would have an incentive not to tell TfL,” McNamara went on.
In recent days, 200 taxis have been repainted with a photograph of home secretary Theresa May and the slogan, "How Am I Supposed To Feed My Family Whilst I Am Waiting?", while plans are afoot to put the same message up on 500 billboards around the city.
“It’s funny how quickly you can get a meeting with people when you put a photograph of the Home Secretary on a cab and start issuing statements to the newspapers when the same people ignored you before,” he declared.
One driver, who lives in Suffolk, spent days trying to track down what had happened to his application: the Metropolitan police knew nothing about it; neither did his local force. Essex Constabulary, where he once lived, was equally in the dark.
Then, “and he remembered this in the early hours of the morning”, he recalled that he had been stopped months before in the City of London by a British transport police squad car, though no prosecution subsequently followed.
The drivers accept the need for checks, and accept also that some will take longer than others to process, but they have asked that the system returns to giving out renewals pending the arrival of certification.
“They just need to put a box on the form, saying that the driver wants his clearance to go directly to TfL. However, the Home Office says that that needs primary legislation in the Commons, which I find very hard to believe,” McNamara said.