Local authorities may force service and repair garages to pay a licence fee for vehicles they use to give customers free rides to and from work or home whenever the garage has a car in for a service.
Local authorities are considering classifying courtesy lift vehicles as 'private hire vehicles' like taxis and may subject them to licensing under the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981, or the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976.
But the plans have met with opposition because the Acts were primarily targeted at the regulation of the mini-cab industry which local authorities believe has, to date, operated in a largely unregulated environment.
The Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI) is critical of the plans. Chief executive David Evans said: "Unfortunately it would appear that neither the RMI nor the motor industry as a whole was consulted on the introduction of the 1998 Act, which itself was not specifically designed to regulate the use of courtesy lift vehicles but was aimed at much needed regulation of the mini-cab industry.
"I would argue the courtesy lift service provided by many service and repair garages as part of their general customer service should not be subject to such regulation because customers are not charged a separate fare for the lifts they receive.
"So the RMI is seeking clarification from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions as to the extent of the regulations. Then, if it becomes necessary, we will push for an amendment to be made to take courtesy vehicles out of the regulations altogether."
The problem has arisen because of the way the law is interpreted, which defines a private hire vehicle as "a vehicle constructed or adapted to seat fewer than nine passengers available with a driver to the public for hire for the purpose of carrying passengers other than a licensed taxi or public service vehicle".
An 'operator' is 'the person who makes provision for the invitation or acceptance of, or who accepts, private hire bookings'.
Courtesy lift vehicles could be seen as private hire vehicles because they are made available with a driver to the public for the purpose of carrying passengers, even though garages do not charge a separate fee for carrying passengers.
If local authorities push ahead with the plans, garages are likely to end up paying substantial amounts to licence their vehicles and, in London, actually pay extra for an operator's licence.
After October, 22 2001 it will be an offence to operate a private hire vehicle in London without a licence. The licences are issued for a period of five years and the cost depends on the number of vehicles available for private hire bookings.
For small operators with two vehicles or fewer available for private hire bookings there is an application fee of £425 and a grant of licence fee of £375. More than two vehicles, and the licence fee jumps to £975, but the application fee remains £425. Outside the City of London and Metropolitan Police District there is no apparent deadline for operator licence applications, but garages should contact their local authority to clarify the extent of the licensing system in their area.
Service and repair garages within the City of London and Metropolitan Police Districts should contact the Public Carriage Office for an information pack detailing the requirements for a licence and method of application.
London operators who need more information should write to: Private Hire Licensing Section, Public Carriage Office 15 Penton Street, London N1 9PU. Telephone 0207 421 1050.