Gangster fears for city taxis

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FEARS were raised today that moves to privatise the Capital's taxi inspection office could open the door for Glasgow gangsters.

The Cab Office in Murrayburn Road is headed by the police, and widely regarded as operating one of the toughest licensing and vehicle inspection regimes in the country.

As taxis and private hire vehicles from Edinburgh, Midlothian and West Lothian are all tested at the relatively small centre, a new base may soon have to be built.

Under EU procurement rules, senior city councillors fear they would then be forced to put the service out to tender, meaning the police could lose overall control of the Cab Office.

Without a police presence to keep a close check on the trade, they are concerned that criminals would find it easier to set up business in Edinburgh. Glasgow gangs are already believed to be making moves to establish themselves in the Capital's private hire trade.

SNP councillor Colin Keir, the head of the regulatory committee that deals with taxi issues, is writing to Scottish ministers with his concerns.

"We're looking for help to see how we can keep the police doing this service," he said. "I'm determined to ensure we have the safest and the best taxi and private hire services available anywhere."

Taxi driver Keith Bell, the former chairman of lobby group CABforce, added: "If the Cab Office was privatised, it would be a free-for-all for every gangster and drug seller under the sun.

"It's only because we have a police-based Cab Office that Edinburgh has stayed relatively free (of criminal activity]. You can't intimidate a police officer, which is what happens in other cities."

A lax system could make Edinburgh more attractive to people looking to use the taxi and private hire trade to mask illegal activities, including drug dealing. Insiders claim that cab owners with criminal links in other cities often employ intimidation tactics to pass vehicle inspection tests, and may get away with having incorrect documentation or putting the same set of good tyres on all their vehicles, for example. Evidence of the transportation of drugs may also go unnoticed.

Eric Shade, chairman of the Edinburgh Taxi Association, said: "I certainly wouldn't like to see the Cab Office go – it keeps a tight reign on things."

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on legislation which would see the mandatory licensing of taxi and private hire booking offices.

It is hoped these changes, which are set to be in place by the autumn, will help flush out criminal links to the trade.

Taxi and private hire operators will be forced to apply for a licence, and all bookings and fares will be officially logged under the new powers, which also give police power of entry into cab offices.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, speaking as the MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, said today:

"Any moves that would undermine a properly regulated and closely supervised regime could only be detrimental, not just for the taxi trade, but for the whole city."