When driver and rider matching service Uber was allowed to get its London operating licence back recently, despite it having been conceded, even by the company itself, that it had been trading illegally since it arrived in the capital in 2012, the background of the chief magistrate who presided over the case, Emma Arbuthnot, raised eyebrows, especially her husband’s close connection to Uber. But the judgment stood.
However, the Observer has been on the Arbuthnot case, and for London’s under-pressure cab trade, what has now happened is rather more than eyebrow raising. Today’s story reminds us “Lady Arbuthnot, who is married to senior Tory Lord Arbuthnot, approved a probationary 15-month licence for Uber to operate in the capital in June. Her ruling was a lifeline for the company, which in September had been told that Transport for London would not renew its licence”. Because it was trading illegally, among other things.
Uber’s attitude to checking out its drivers, its reporting of crimes to the Metropolitan Police (or the lack of it), the arm-twisting of politicians to get it on the road in London, the overriding of TfL concerns over the app’s legitimacy, and the constant pressure on regulators by cheerleaders whose message coordination was remarkable for those of independent thought, all were excused in an instant.
But now the Observer has revealed that “Lord Arbuthnot, a former Tory MP for Wanstead and Woodford, and then North East Hampshire, and chair of the defence select committee … [is] … a director of SC Strategy Ltd. Little is known about the private intelligence company, founded by Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, and Sir John Scarlett, the head of MI6 between 2004 and 2009”.
What’s the connection to Uber? “One of its few known clients has been the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the giant sovereign wealth fund that invests billions around the world … In December 2014, in a story that was not denied at the time by the QIA and was picked up globally by other media outlets, the Wall Street Journal reported that the fund was one of the main investors to have participated in a $1.2bn financing round for Uber”.
There was more. “Mick Rix, national officer with the GMB union which contested Uber’s London licence, said it had not known of the links between Lady Arbuthnot’s husband, SC Strategy and one of Uber’s largest shareholders … Rix said … ‘Any matter which may be perceived as a conflict of interest is required to be drawn to the attention of the parties involved in any litigation at the outset’”. And yet more.
Emma Arbuthnot was due to hear an appeal by Uber against the decision by Brighton and Hove City Council against their decision not to renew Uber’s licence. She has now recused herself from the hearing. But then, the all too obvious thought enters.
Does this not put the decision made at Uber’s London appeal hearing in doubt? How can that verdict now stand? As the Observer notes, “Her ruling was a lifeline for the company”. Moreover, the promised changes to the Uber app, so that drivers do not accept jobs directly (for instance), have not been tested by a software engineer.
London’s cab trade will be rightly aggrieved at the revelations. The Uber licence case should be reopened. After all, nobody should be above the law. That is all.
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