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Saturday 12 August 2017

Uber And TfL - It’s Literally Criminal

The litany of questionable behaviour by driver and rider matching service Uber, and the thus far muted response from Transport for London, right-leaning politicians, and the press establishment, has been well documented. But what is now known is not only that the abuse of private hire vehicle (PHV) regulation has involved organised criminality, but also that Uber has actively been obstructing the law enforcement process.
These are not mere claims plucked out of the air, but the inescapable conclusions from the results of a concerted FoI campaign by the taxi trade in London. Some, or perhaps all, of this may be covered by the Sunday Times this weekend, but you can read it here first.

The concerns of the Metropolitan Police were set out in an email from a senior Police officer to TfL, the contents of which have been made available to me. This gave three examples of misuse of PHVs. The narrative is concise and disturbing.

1. In February 2017 officers noticed the driver of a [redacted] using a mobile phone whilst driving. Officers have indicated for the vehicle to stop, at which point it has made off driving through a set of red traffic lights. For safety reasons the vehicle was not pursued. The vehicle had a TfL PH roundel in the rear window. The same vehicle (again clearly displaying roundels) has failed to stop for police in April 2017. As yet we have been unable to trace the driver of the vehicle involved in this incident. The vehicle was hired through a company called [redacted] who hire licensed PH vehicles with minimal checks”.

2. In March 2017 a male was stopped driving a vehicle displaying PHV roundels. He was arrested for GBH, suspected of drug dealing and stated he hired the vehicle from [redacted] … The driver had previously been arrested for serious offences and was related to organised crime gangs. He was not a licensed driver. When spoken to by police [redacted] stated that they do hire out licensed vehicles, but do not check if the driver holds a PH license (despite their website saying they do check for a PH licence before hire.) In essence they will hire a licensed PHV to anyone, and will continue to do so”.

3. In June 2017 a male was stopped driving a Black Mercedes displaying PHV license roundels expiring in February 2018. The driver was on bail for firearms offences. He was not a licensed PHV driver. He had hired the car from [redacted] who confirmed the hire agreement. There was no insurance on the vehicle and it was seized by police. This male was known to police for numerous serious offences. [Redacted] licensed cars as private hire vehicles and then used them to commit crime”.

You think that’s bad? The officer’s observation “In short, anyone can hire a TfL PHV and use it as they choose. Examples of the risks this presents includes them acting as a taxi tout with a view to committing sexual offences, transport drugs and weapons around London and also to avoid Congestion Charging” was effectively confirmed by a senior TfL official. Their response is shown below.

You'll no doubt be aware that the legislation in London permits the use of taxis and private hire vehicles for private use which means they can be driven by non-licensed drivers. Any change in law would require parliamentary intervention rather than it being something within our gift to amend through policy”.

Now, none of this implicates Uber. But it does facilitate the abuse of the PHV licensing system, and Uber is a part of that community. So, moving right along, we come to the Met’s concerns about Uber, the second of three areas covered in this post.

Again, a senior Police officer voices concerns to TfL: “I have had a number of calls from licensing authorities outside of London who have issues with TfL licensed drivers working extensively in their areas. The issue with this from a policing perspective is that the various Local Authorities don’t have any powers so any enforcement needed in theory falls to the local police. Out of area working, as Zelo Street has chronicled previously.

The specific area covered was Brighton, but the general rule follows for all areas: local taxi and PHV enforcement cannot tackle this growing phenomenon, and it gets dumped on an already over-stretched Police force. How stretched? The officer reveals “To my knowledge there are only 2 Police Constables dedicated to policing the trade outside of London (Birmingham and now Plymouth)”.

And Uber specifically receives a damning assessment: “I do also hold concerns with Uber as an operator and am seeing an increasing amount of my team’s workload relating directly to them (out of 128 PH drivers reported for driving offences in the last 4 weeks 79 were Uber drivers with many of these offences relating directly to road safety). There seems to be a disconnect between them taking responsibility for their drivers, their driving standards and the condition of their vehicles” [my emphasis].
So we arrive at the most disturbing revelation: obstruction of the law enforcement process.

Here is what a clearly concerned senior Met officer has to say about actual Uber incidents: “On the 4 March 2017 Uber have had contact from a passenger informing them of a serious incident involving an Uber (and TfL Licensed PHV) driver. The nature of the allegation was that during a booked journey a road rage incident has developed between the driver and another road user. During this incident, the driver has taken what the passenger believed to be a handgun from the glovebox and left the vehicle to pursue the other party on foot. At this point, the passenger has fled the vehicle in fear”.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a gun, but … “On becoming aware of this incident, Uber have spoken to the driver and ascertained that it was in fact pepper spray he had taken from the glovebox and not a handgun. Pepper spray is legally classed as a firearm and every weapon carried on the street represents a threat to public safety”.

So what did Uber do? “At this point, Uber have dismissed the driver and made LTPH licensing aware”. But Uber did not report the matter to the Police, depending on TfL to do so. And it got worse.

Further contact has taken place between the MPS and Uber in an attempt to identify the passenger (a significant witness) and also to find out why Uber haven’t reported this directly to Police. Uber have stated to the MPS that they are not obliged to report this, or similar matters, and are only required to notify TfL as per regulations”.

And it got worse still: “Uber have refused to provide any further information unless a formal request under the Data Protection Act is submitted”. And what happens in the meantime? The senior officer had a further, and yet more worrying, case study to hand.

On the 30 January 2016, a female was sexually assaulted by an Uber driver. From what we can ascertain, Uber have spoken to the driver who denied the offence. Uber have continued to employ the driver and have done nothing more. While Uber did not say they would contact the Police, the victim believed that they would inform the Police on her behalf”. And how do we know this sexual assault was not merely an alleged offence?

As if you need to ask: “On the 10 May 2016, the same driver has committed a second, more serious, sexual assault against a different passenger. Again, Uber haven’t said to this victim they would contact the Police, but she was, to use her words, ‘strongly under the impression’ that they would”.

At least Uber did something this time: “On the 13 May 2016, Uber have finally acted and dismissed the driver, notifying LTPH licensing who have passed the information to the MPS”. But they still didn’t notify the Police directly.

The senior officer points out that, firstly, had the first offence been promptly notified, the second would have been averted, and, secondly, that in both cases once the passengers’ details had been supplied to Police, both victims welcomed the Met contacting them.

The officer observes “Uber hold a position not to report crime on the basis that it may breach the rights of the passenger”. That, not to put too fine a point on it, is bullshit.

Plus the concerns of the Met do not end there, especially when it comes to Uber’s refusal to notify potential criminal behaviour to the Police, which as most people would see it is the  patently obvious thing to do - especially when it is known that organised criminality is known to use TfL licensed PHVs as cover. Here’s the senior officer once more.

In 2016, the MPS were made aware of 6 sexual assaults, 2 public order offences and 1 assault which were first reported to Uber and then subsequently to LTPH licensing. The delay [between] the offence occurring and a report coming to the attention of Police ranged from a matter of weeks to 7 months. The two public order offences mentioned above are subject to a 6 month prosecution time limit, so subsequently both were taken no further as by the time we became aware of the offence, we had no power to proceed, despite [in both cases] having clear evidence of an offence taking place”.

In conclusion, the officer tells TfL “The significant concern I am raising is that Uber have been made aware of criminal activity, and yet haven’t informed the Police … My concern is twofold, firstly it seems they are deciding what to report … and secondly by not reporting to Police promptly they are allowing situations to develop that clearly affect the safety and security of the public”.

What has been covered here is more than enough for Uber to be refused an extension to their license by TfL; indeed, how London’s PHV regulator can do otherwise, given the cavalier attitude to assisting the Police, is unthinkable.

With the spectre of organised criminality using TfL licensed PHVs, that body needs to shape up fast, and it is hoped that Mayor Sadiq Khan will take appropriate action to cause them to do so. If that means heads roll at TfL, so be it. The regulator cannot be seen to be asleep on the job: if it needs Parliament to act, TfL should not be using that as an excuse to do nothing, but should instead be lobbying for change.

If Uber cannot behave as responsible members of the private hire community, they should not be allowed into that community. And TfL must get their act together. That is all.

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