A catalogue of strong objections have been made to a bid by the smartphone app Uber to operate taxis in Brighton and Hove, despite concerns the company could sue the city council if it is rejected.
Established taxi firms say Uber’s record of employing uninsured drivers, intimidation and touting at Gatwick Airport, no way of requesting a wheelchair friendly car, raising prices during crises including a terror attack and tax dodging makes them unfit to hold the licence.
But the licensing panel, which will consider the application next Monday, has been cautioned not to rely on hearsay when deciding whether to approve it.
And a mystery objector, whose name has been redacted, warns that now taxi operators are able to serve customers outside the authority which issued their licence, Uber will simply be able to bypass Brighton and Hove City Council in any case.
The report to the committee makes it clear that officers do not have enough experience with applications from online operators to be able to make a firm recommendation.
However, it makes it clear that a taxi operator is a position of responsibility, as they are privy to information such as when houses are left empty or when older children might be left alone.
It said: “It is therefore vital that operators are as trustworthy and reliable as a driver, notwithstanding their slightly remote role. There is no reason why a condition cannot be imposed on the PHO licence requiring them to undertake checks (for instance enhanced DBS checks and training) on those they employ/use within their company to satisfy themselves that they are fit and proper people to undertake that task, and retain that information that they obtain to demonstrate that compliance to the local authority.”
The report then says concerns about how Uber has operated in Europe and the USA cannot be taken into account, as there are different laws there. It notes Transport for London’s high court case over whether the smartphone app can be considered a taximeter, which are prohibited in private hire vehicles in London.
However, Brighton and Hove makes meters a requirement of a private hire vehicle licence, so if the High Court rules the app is a meter, this could be a sticking point.
In respect of concerns over Uber’s tax arrangements, it says HMRC is satisfied so that cannot be taken into account.
It says there is not enough firm evidence of allegations of nuisance at airports to affect the application. Likewise, allegations of data protection breaches appear without any hard evidence, although it would be legitimate to question Uber about them.
And it does say Uber would need to demonstrate it had a robust method for checking drivers are insured, and that the question of providing wheelchair accessible vehicles can be raised, although new operators generally don’t have to provide them until they have a sizeable fleet.
It warns: “Many allegations have been made, but it is important to differentiate those that relate to matters abroad and are often multiple hearsay and those within a domestic environment. Within the domestic environment, much again is hearsay and should be treated with extreme caution. It is noted that TFL and numerous other local authorities have licenced Uber.
“This would suggest (but is not definitive) that they have not uncovered any concerns about the operating company that would mean that they are not fit and proper.
“Given that all English authorities licence using the same basic principles, this has to be noted if we are to look at Uber in its widest context.”
Dave Smith, chairman of Brighton and Hove Streamline, pointed out apparent double standards in terms of regulations his taxi company is required to comply with which he believes the council is considering waiving for Uber.
He said: “A fit and proper person would recognize the role of livery, the need to comply with equality/disability requirements, data protection and criminal checks and would explain to you how they have dealt with or intend to deal with such issues.
“Uber has not confronted these concerns and cannot answer these criticisms. If they are unaware of these concerns or have chosen to ignore these concerns, they are not a fit or proper person to hold an operator’s licence.”
He added: “In your briefing document you suggested that the financial clout of Uber could result in expensive litigation but at that stage you should get legal advice and until such application is determined the Magistrates Court to which Uber would need to appeal should be a no costs forum.”
Coun Mary Mears also wrote to object, saying: “Serious concerns have also been raised regarding equalities, practically for disable users. Uber do not regard themselves as a Taxi company and refer to themselves as a third party taxi booking service.
“They state they are NOT a “transport provider.” They are in fact a phone app. If CCTV data from Uber vehicle is required (a condition of licensing under Brighton and Hove) how will this data be collected?
“I do understand concerns raised by local authorities, as Uber is owned by a multi-million pound company, and the threat of being sued is a real concern, but I feel as a council our duty is to protect the most vulnerable, by refusing a license.”
Letters were also received from Andy Cheesman of City Cabs, the Licensed Private Hire Cars Association and GMB.
However, a letter whose sender has been redacted, as they fear “intimidation and bullying … by the [taxi] cartel” dismisses all the concerns, saying they’re either misplaced or can be addressed in licence requirements.
They add: ” Only a fool will believe that Uber will pack up their bags and go away should the council reject their application. Instead they will try and license in Lewes, in Adur, in Mid-Sussex, or possibly them all.
“They will get a local license to operate somewhere, and that will leave the local B&H trade and the council with the worst possible outcome. In respect of the trade, we will see yet more local Brighton and Hove work being lost to vehicles licensed elsewhere.
“That work which would have gone to Brighton and Hove licensed vehicles will instead be given (quite legally) to non Brighton and Hove licensed vehicles and drivers. I’m frankly amazed the likes of the GMB don’t understand that obvious outcome should the council reject the Uber application.
“But it’s not just the Brighton and Hove drivers that would lose out, the council itself will be left with a situation of dozens of Uber vehicles working the city with the council unable to check or enforce any of them. Is that really what we want?
“Do the council really want residents and visitors of our city being told ‘it’s nothing to do with me’ should they wish to make a complaint to B&H council about a Uber vehicle? Is this what any of us want post Rotherham?”