A racism row has broken out after a city’s taxi drivers started displaying stickers in their cars saying they are ‘English speaking’.
Up to a dozen drivers have been showing off the notices bearing the St George’s Cross on the back windows of their cars in Southampton, Hampshire.
The small red and white sticker declares the cab is being driven by an ‘English speaking driver.’
But the flags have been branded ‘racist’ by trade representatives, councillors and racism campaigners who have demanded they are removed.
Taxi drivers have hit back, claiming the stickers are simply a protest to force the council to make sure new drivers can speak good English.
The stickers were placed in the cars after drivers received complaints about the standard of spoken English among them.
There have also been complaints from passengers about drivers using sat navs and over-charging.
Perry McMillan, chairman of the Southampton cab section of trade union Unite, said the group’s ethnic minority members had been upset by the stickers.
He said: ‘Surely all drivers speak English. If they don’t, then what’s going on?
‘We hope that licensing officers can investigate this and satisfy the trade that this isn’t the case.’
Campaign group Show Racism the Red Card demanded the stickers be taken down from the cab windows.
Chief Executive Ged Grebby said: ‘I don’t have a problem with displaying the cross of St George because this is a symbol we have managed to reclaim from the far right.
‘But the “English speaking driver” part is where it crosses the line into racism.
‘Cab drivers have to have a command of English and there are strong racist undertones in this message.
‘I think the drivers should take the flags down immediately and if they don’t, they should be told to by the council who licences them.’
But taxi drivers have hit back at the allegations of racism.
Clive Johnson, chairman of taxi firm Radio Taxis and the Southampton Trade Association, said: ‘These signs are not racial.
‘They are a protest to the council saying please make sure all new drivers have command of the English language.
‘There are a few drivers out there who cannot speak English and just bluff their way along.
‘It doesn’t matter if they are Polish, Russian, French or Spanish, if they can’t communicate with passengers then it’s a problem.’
Taxi driver Peter Ford, 48, said: ‘It’s just about letting customers know that the driver will actually be able to speak English, which isn’t always the case.’
Fellow driver Chris Head, 49, added: ‘I have no problem with the stickers.
‘Lots of customers will wait at ranks until an English driver comes along because they want someone they can talk to.’
Ian Hall, chairman of the Southampton Hackney Association, said half of the group’s 126 members are from an Asian background.
He added: ‘I don’t think any drivers should have these stickers in the back of their car because it’s racist.
‘If drivers have got these stickers in their back windows then they need to take them down.’
Mr Hall said night trade in Southampton would ‘collapse’ without ethnic minority drivers, who buy the majority of taxi plates.
The sticker issue was raised at a meeting between cab firms and Southampton City Council.
It is believed that the council would order them to be removed if it received complaints from passengers.
Chairman of the council’s licensing committee Councillor Brian Parnell said the stickers were ‘offensive’.
He said: ‘It’s certainly not the image we want for Southampton.
‘It is offensive to drivers from ethnic minorities who form a large part of the city’s drivers and without whom Southampton’s taxi service would suffer.
‘We want to promote harmony in the city.
‘But it is important that taxi drivers meet a certain set of standards and one of those is the ability to speak English.
‘It is normal good practice for anyone working in another country to be able to speak the language of that country.
‘I think the problem might be that many drivers do speak English but with a heavy accent that can be difficult to understand.’
Cllr Don Thomas, who sits on the licensing committee, added: ‘Taxis and taxi drivers can form the first impression that visitors have of Southampton.
‘I think this is completely the wrong sort of message to be sending out in what is proudly a cosmopolitan city.’
A council spokesman said: ‘People should contact the council and let us know if they see signs and stickers being used in taxis, particularly if they find them offensive.’
Currently, anyone who wants to drive a taxi must hold a British driving licence, pass a medical, undergo a criminal record check and complete a ‘knowledge’ test of Southampton.
Last year council chiefs added a driving assessment and a test in basic reading, writing and communication skills.
Within six months of taking to the road, drivers must also pass a BTec qualification in Road Transport Passenger Driving.