By Pete Hodson
Established in 2011 by then VP Welfare Adam McGibbon, the Fonacab-QUBSU ‘cab now pay later’ scheme enabled Queen’s students to travel home by taxi without payment. Student cards are taken by the driver as a guarantor of payment, which are returned to the SU the following day and released to students on receipt of the taxi fare incurred the previous night. Setting up the scheme formed a key pledge in Mr McGibbon’s election manifesto in 2010, which he suggested would improve student safety on nights out. Hundreds of Queen’s students have availed of the scheme over the past 4 years, avoiding a nocturnal walk home owing to lack of cash. Mr McGibbon, who manged the re-election campaign of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, stated that he set up the scheme “because I was concerned about reports of students – particularly first years – getting stranded in various parts of Belfast on nights out, with no idea where they were. No student should ever go without a safe ride home – and the scheme was a vital lifeline for many students”.
Details have emerged that QUBSU have quietly dropped Fonacab as the provider of the service in favour of rival company Value Cabs – with minimal notification of the change. In the past few days, however, an advertising banner has appeared outside the Students’ Union. Incumbent VP Patrick Sally announced the extension of the Fonacab scheme at Student Council on 18th November last year, but has since confirmed that Value Cabs now possess the contract. Mr Sally has been unable to provide any details about the circumstances behind the change in taxi provider or reasons for the limited communication with the student body, but has informed the Gown of his intention to “update the [SU] website and other forms of social media” in the coming days.
The Gown has been approached by SU security staff alarmed at the lack of publicising the change in taxi provider – and the risks this poses for student safety. It appears that transitional period between taxi providers was not immediate, prompting concerns from SU security that the scheme had been abandoned altogether. A member of QUBSU’s security team, who wishes to remain anonymous, stated it “seems discouraging that the VP Welfare wouldn’t inform students of a safe way for students to make their way home and not have to worry about paying the bill ASAP.”
The Gown has been asking members of the student body whether they were aware that Value Cabs now provide the service. Mark Mairs, a second year Land Use and Environmental Management student, told the Gown of his surprise that the switch has taken place with little in the way of notifying students, adding “surely such a move, regardless of intent, has the possibility of jeopardising student safety”. Fellow second year Jack Fitzsimmons revealed that he was unaware such a scheme was ever offered, suggesting that “the SU need to up their game in terms of getting the message out”. Third year student Katie Matthews stated “I think we should have been advised, had I not been made aware of the fact today I could well have found myself in a vulnerable position if refused a fare by Fonacab when having no money”. Of the ten students interviewed, none were aware that the Fonacab contract had lapsed and been awarded to Value Cabs. Four students – including one third year – had never heard of the ‘cab now pay later’ scheme.