It has become clear recently that driver and rider matching service Uber has deployed all manner of weapons in its bid to get not just a foothold in the London private hire market, but a dominant position. Their PR machine found many press and other media voices unusually susceptible to their propaganda, the public was bombarded with an incessant sales campaign … and then there was Transport for London.
The taxi trade has not been alone in regarding TfL’s accommodation of Uber with at least suspicion, and, more recently, growing hostility, as the behaviour of drivers - and the company’s executives - has raised eyebrows. Rumours abounded of the unusual closeness between the two organisations, a state which, if true, would be downright unhealthy for taxi and private hire operators alike.
And now it is rumour no more: a series of presentation slides has come to light which beg disturbing questions of TfL. The regulator of the taxi and private hire industry should be keeping its distance from all operators, whether individuals, co-operatives, or corporates. What these slides show is little short of a blatant attempt by Uber to bend the rules beyond the limits of elasticity, and what is not far short of offering TfL an inducement to do so.
Let’s start at the very beginning, as it’s a very good place to start. The first slide is titled “The PCO Opportunity”, PCO being the private hire licence anyone driving with Uber must obtain, if they don’t already hold one. Uber’s intention is clear.
“Uber is forecasted to exhaust the pool of existing PCO drivers in June [2015?]”. So more new recruits to Uber will have to go through the process of obtaining a PCO.
“Recently joined Uber partners [ho ho ho] report that the PCO licensing process takes 9-12 weeks … We have found that the timeline discourages potential drivers from completing the process”. Well, I’m all broken up about a 12 week wait putting some people off. Being entrusted with the safety of punters in London is not some kind of get-rich-quick scheme - those doing The Knowledge, who aspire to become proper taxi drivers, take around four years. Making them wait 12 weeks sounds like an eminently sound way of weeding out those who aren’t fussed.
That much is bad enough. But then comes the “Opportunity”, which tells “We forecast that over 1,200 new PCO drivers will choose Uber in [the first half of] 2015 … these are new opportunities; real potential to take people out of unemployment and into work”. It is not within TfL’s remit to provide a job creation service. Their duty is to regulate the taxi and private hire industry. Was there a demand for thousands more PCOs? Because it is to that question that TfL should be responding. If not, it’s not their concern.
And then comes the seriously dodgy part: “Every 1k new drivers means £250k application fees for TfL … We would like your input on how we can best work with you to provide high quality, complete applications”. Uber can best work with TfL by following the rules as laid down, and if they don’t like it, tough. As to the hit of more application fee revenue, that stinks. It looks so close to the offer of an inducement that TfL should have told them to sling their hooks there and then.
The second slide just goes through the PCO process. But the third brings yet more eyebrow raising suggestions - which also should have seen Uber sent packing.
Could other agencies get involved in the DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check? Could DBS speed it up? Again - who is in charge of regulation? Why should the tail wag the dog for the benefit of one provider?
Uber would very much like to be a test centre for the Topographic Test. That is not their business, and this suggestion should have been squashed flat.
Could Uber “help streamline” the PCO process? What does that mean?
As with so much of Uber’s involvement in London, this disclosure provokes far more questions than it answers. If that was a bona fide presentation to TfL, the first of those questions is this - why was Uber allowed to continue operating after coming so close to offering TfL an inducement as makes little difference?
And why has Uber’s request to continue operating in the capital, which is up for decision this month, not been dismissed as a result?
The closeness of the relationship between TfL and Uber needs to be thoroughly investigated - and then made public. In the meantime, there should be no renewal of Uber’s licence. And if Uber doesn’t like that, that’s just too bad. The regulation of the taxi and private hire industries is not their job, and they should not seek to make it so.