Baroness Sal Brinton writes…Why we should be concerned about the Uber app

Taxis on Oxford StreetThere’s been much in the media today about the Hackney Cab blockade/strike in London this afternoon, protesting to TfL and Boris Johnson about the licence that TfL have given Uber to set up an app for hailing minicabs.

This isn’t a turf war. It’s much more serious than that, and there are some highly political issues here too that affect anyone who uses a taxi.

I won’t rehearse the cab drivers own concerns – they are much better at expressing that themselves as with today’s Comment is Free piece by Ian Beetlestone at the Guardian.

Here are 6 reasons why I think we ought to be asking questions:

  1. All the adverts about never using non-registered minicabs for personal safety reasons fly out the window because Uber take no responsibility for minicabs being registered. In the event that an unregistered driver managed to access the App, and a passenger were attacked, they wash their hands of the problem. Minicab drivers do not have to have criminal records checks, unlike Hackney drivers. Would you want your teenage daughter to hail one late at night with no access to a reliable minicab firm taking the booking?
  2. The fares are unregulated. Uber take 20% of the fare price, but you won’t be paying the TfL regulated rate that Hackneys charge, as – for the first time ever – a deal has been struck allowing them to set their own rates. I’m not aware that this is highlighted to the passenger at the start of the journey.
  3. Worse than the unregulated fares, Uber are the first non-hackney company to be permitted to set a meter. This is a fundamental part of the regulation of hackneys since they were first licensed in the 19th Century, and there has been no public debate about this key change.   And the rate is not regulated, so they can set it at the level that they want.
  4. The minicabs are not subject to the same vehicle safety checks as hackneys, nor do the drivers have to do “The Knowledge”, so their knowledge of London can be minimal.
  5. Uber is registered as an offshore company, so, guess what? They will pay as little tax as possible in the UK. Preferably none. Why on earth did TfL not insist that they operate through a UK subsidiary and pay tax locally? This will be a highly profitable business with minimal overheads. Given the high profile of private companies not paying tax, one that is regulated in the public realm should surely be asked to pay taxes.
  6. And finally, a selfish note. I use a wheelchair, so I can’t risk using it (even if I wanted to most minicabs are saloon cars, and you won’t know until the minicab appears whether it can take you or not. With black cabs you are reassured that 99% have ramps, most of which are built in.

Everywhere that Uber have set up internationally New York, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, San Fransciso etc) there have been issues about them, from the unregulated metering through to a remote and tax avoiding company that won’t take responsibility for its drivers.

I regret that London Hackney Cab drivers have had to go to the lengths of today’s action, but I think it is time that we taxi users also woke up to the major changes, which won’t just affect London. Uber’s intention is to get into every major city that it can. Watch out Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Cardiff. They raised over $300m in 2013 from investors, who clearly see it as highly profitable, and are already talking about going public. Last valuation was about $3bn. Should profit come before safety?

* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.

Read more by or more about , , , or .
This entry was posted in News.


  • Isn’t the solution to most of this concerns to institute more regulation of the minicab trade rather than ban Uber in order to protect the Hackney cab trade?

  • Sorry, meant to add: regarding the knowledge. The knowledge was a key element prior to the days of Sat Nav technology but these days it’s little more than a crude barrier to entry that acts to protect the status of hackney cab drivers. Do you really need your driver to know every route when they can simply enter your destination into a box on the dashboard which will tell them the best way and, possibly, re-route automatically based on live traffic information?

  • Simon McGrath 11th Jun '14 - 2:26pm

    “Everywhere that Uber have set up internationally New York, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, San Fransciso etc) there have been issues about them, from the unregulated metering through to a remote and tax avoiding company that won’t take responsibility for its drivers.”
    Or to put it another way, everywhere they have set up their competitors have come up with a load of usually spurious points to try and stop them competing .
    The article is very odd because a lot of the points are just(if not more) applicable to mini cabs – disability access, unregulated fares, safety checks, not having to do the knowledge.

  • Nick Barlow 11th Jun '14 - 2:46pm

    Just on point 6 does Uber not have an option for requesting an accessible vehicle? Seems to me that they’re missing an opportunity there if they don’t.

  • Sal is right we should be asking questions, not just about Uber (and other similar app providers), but about the modern taxi cab business and the regulations that apply, given the technology enabled changes we are seeing.

    @Jack 11th Jun ’14 – 1:52pm re: “the knowledge” and Sat Nav’s.
    I’ve found that many taxi drivers in Paris rely on their satnav and have no real idea of where they are going, hence I have frequently had to tell the cab driver that their satnav is incorrect, my destination is a further 1km up the road, this is because the satnav is using the mailing address (ie. used for deliveries) and not the address for the visitor reception, I can do this because I regularly visit these clients…

    A second example of the value of local knowledge over Satnav, it took nearly five years for my address to appear on satnav maps, although for about three of those years the post code did display in the middle of an empty field.

    Finally a third example: it is a simple 10 minute journey by car to the next village, by satnav it can be nearly 30 minutes because satnav’s tend to default to using main roads rather than country lanes…

    However, a satnav (with current traffic reports) in the hands of someone with local knowledge can be a very useful tool.

  • James BLESSING 11th Jun '14 - 2:47pm

    Whilst the issue of safety and the supply of disabled friendly cars are real issues (Uber have tried very hard to address the safety side) it comes across as though cabbies feel they have a god given right to stop any form of competition.

    As LibDems, we surely should be encouraging this sort of enterprise but with the proper checks in place to make sure that the Uber vehicles are up to code, their drivers are safe and that end users are protected from being ripped off.

    I’ve travelled in many a Hackney that’s tried to pull a fast one with the route so its not as if they are saints…

  • Benjamin Mathis 11th Jun '14 - 2:50pm

    I worked for the Public Carriage Office processing licence applications and sending out licences. Back in 2006/7, all licensed London minicab drivers were required (among other things) to produce a full enhanced CRB check before their application could be processed.

    I believe there have since been changes to the CRB itself, but it is certainly not true to say that minicab drivers are not subject to background checks.

    This protest sounds more like the black cabbies trying to protect their privileged position than anything to do with genuine concern for the public. While it may be easy to hail a cab in Central London, out in the suburbs where there aren’t a constant swarm of taxis patrolling the streets, this service looks like being extremely useful for comsumers. It will need keeping an eye on, of course, and it’s probably worth discussing directly with them how they provide for users who use wheelchairs etc. But when Hackney Cabs long ago moved onto the territory of minicabs by being able to be “hailed” by phone, it is hardly surprising or a terrible liberty for an equivalent move onto their “territory” to happen in the other direction.

    Ultimately this means more choice and more power for the consumer. What liberal is going to oppose that?

  • This is a fairly poor article I think.

    Here’s the reality: the regulation (i.e. distorted cartel practice) of Hackneycabs needs to be quickly and massively modernised, or the entire system will be brought down by modern competitors like Uber.

    This is no different to the recording media industry (i.e. distorted cartel practice) having to modernise massively in the face of internet downloading for the same reasons.

    Now, you can either stand with the past, shouting and pointing at how frightening the future is, or you can be part of the future and make it better.

    Choose, and do it quickly.

  • I don’t know about London, but in Oxford a Hackney Carriage Licence would have cost you about £80k about a decade ago, that’s just the value of the artificial permission slip, not the cab itself – now a major investment as more and more cities insist on cabs being less than a certain number of years old, forcing them to fork out for a new one every few years. The licence is pure economic rent created by the artificial scarcity of regulation. In New York medallions are so scarce it is rare for an ordinary cabbie to be able to afford one so they have to pay this artificially created rent to a private investor who often has snapped up several purely as an investment. The rewards of state created scarcity – privilege – being reaped by the best off and best connected from the cabbie’s efforts. I’m a liberal, and I’m against this sort of thing!

  • Frankly, this is a problem for London only because of its tightly regulated (closed shop?) system of taxis. In most other areas – for example, in most areas of Scotland – it’s relatively simple to get a license and then to operate as a minicab firm, and they’re even allowed to pick up from taxi ranks and be flagged down on the street (Edinburgh is slightly different, but that’s the case with just about everything!)

    Sanjay makes many really good points. OK, so Uber allows a firm to operate without a license – but that’s something that can be easily changed and if TfL talked to them maybe they could do something about it. But why is it that, in the day and age of sat nav, there’s still this supposed benefit of “The Knowledge”? How does it benefit, say, a tourist, who doesn’t know London so can’t be sure if he’s being taken the quick way or the profitable way – at least with sat nav on most mobiles, there’s a form of checking. And I can’t say that I’m particularly fussed when a taxi driver pulls over at the “destination” on the sat nav, only for me to have to ask to go a few hundred yards down the street – especially since I usually have to give direction to the door anyway.

    All this seems to me to be much ado about nothing, apart from black cab drivers trying to protect their own interests.

  • Tom Papworth 11th Jun '14 - 3:44pm

    It saddens me that once again we have a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian coming out in favour of protective practices.

    As noted above, the Knowledge is meaningless in the age of modern technology. In fact, this is an excellent example of how disruptive technology is stripping away the costs of doing business. Uber’s savings will boost their profits in the short term, but in the long term the market will force them to pass these savings onto competitors. Considering the high costs of Black Cabs in London, this can only be a good thing.

    “Uber’s intention is to get into every major city that it can. Watch out Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Cardiff….” Cheaper, higher quality taxis are coming your way.

  • Even if Baroness Brinton had really raised any valid points (which she didn’t) then the launch of UberTAXI today has destroyed most of them…

  • James BLESSING 11th Jun '14 - 3:49pm
  • Member of House of Lords supports people on strike !!!!

    Shame it was Black Cab Drivers. I would have much sooner read about Members of the House of Lords supporting those trade union members who recently went on strike to keep open ticket offices on the London Underground.

    But I suppose their Lordships (and Ladyships) feel more at home supporting Black Cab Drivers who are well known for their enlightened Liberal views on all things political.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jun '14 - 5:38pm

    Lib Dems should support strikers when they are right and not when they are wrong. It’s weak to just keep begging for justice.

    I would prefer a “liberal” solution to this, such as a bit of deregulation, but sometimes the answer is more regulation or enforcement.

  • Sal Brinton 11th Jun '14 - 5:48pm

    Thank you for the many comments.
    Just to make it plain, I am not in favour of restrictive practices (and nor does the article suggest that), and have supported deregulation of taxis where it’s been clear that the taxi business was not responding to local need. And that’s why Jock is right to say that the £80,000 that he quotes as the permission slip price in Oxford was outrageous.
    Nor am I having a go at minicabs. My key issue is that TfL have now created a hybrid system, with different sets of standards, practices and regulations. Because TfL have allowed Uber to stray into the hackney market with metering and given them what amounts to an ability to hire (even if it is via an app) the public has not been given a say on whether we want to move to one system using different safety standards and with some being able to set their own fare level, but others not. That is a big step. Do we really want to deregulate fares completely? I suspect people will start to object if fares rise quickly.
    Tom – perhaps it is time to remove the Knowledge as a regulatory condition in London, but that is part of the regulatory system, rather than a restrictive practice. TfL and the Mayor should be reviewing the principles of that with the GLA scrutinising it.
    Sanjay, I’m not criticising the principle of the App at all. Please let there be more technical advances to make life easier. What I object to is the financial advantage to one party, and the lack of debate about the changing of a system.
    I remain concerned about the safety elements of de-regulation. Uber doesn’t just contract with minicab companies, but with individual drivers, and yet takes no responsibility or oversight for their actions, whether it is the roadworthiness of vehicles or probity of drivers. And you are right about Hailo being offshore too… Hailo started off just working with black cabs, but they’ve now expanded to minicabs too, so there’s another example of the hybrid system.
    JohnT: Please read what I said! I regret the strike, I don’t support it. And, because I use a wheelchair I also use taxis more than most people, especially when the single space on a bus is already taken. As I use an electric wheelchair, I can’t use the underground, even on step-free platforms because they won’t provide staff to put ramps out. And finally, believe me, I know about the views of taxi drivers, and many are not liberal – goes with the territory. 😉
    I’d be interested to find out what taxi deregulation means to you all.
    Is it complete, including freedom to charge any fare that the taxi wants, with no safety requirements, or is the current dual system of hackneys and minicabs ok, or somewhere in between?

  • Sal Brinton 11th Jun '14 - 5:50pm

    Sorry, Eddie, I cross posted with you. You’ve just answered my question at the end!

  • paul barker 11th Jun '14 - 5:56pm

    Sorry but this looks like a classic case of Luddism to me. Black Cab drivers would be much better off thinking of ways to handle the extra competition, defining & then promoting their USP. They start with a great reputation which they now seem to be trying to destroy.

  • The existing regulated market, however imperfectly, attempts to strike a fair balance between the various interested parties. Uber will disrupt that with new technology that has many attractive features. But does that mean that the need for some sort of public regulation – suitably recast to fit the changed technology – disappears?

    Matt Stoller makes a series of very convincing arguments that Uber’s technology will enable it to capture the available economic rent, to increase that rent and that it is already moving quickly to do so in the US.

    For now, as the new kid on the block and with everyone watching, Uber is constrained to behave somewhat but I see no reason why relative good behaviour would continue if the market fundamentalists get their way. Allowing the public regulation to be swept away by the march of technology doesn’t mean that regulation ceases; it only means that Uber takes over as the regulator, working entirely for private gain and using the powerful network effects that typically accrue to the first mover in software businesses to quickly build an unchallengeable position. Most market fundamentalists are distinctly naïve about how this works or how it’s one of the main forces behind the rapid growth of inequality in recent years.

  • Richard Johnson 11th Jun '14 - 8:15pm

    Agree entirely with MBoy and Sanjay Samani.

    Uber is a brilliant little app, very much in line with the broad aims of trade liberalisation, helping to knock down price cartels by effectively removing barriers to entry.

  • Apart from 5, which is primarily a problem which legislators like Sal Brinton have to solve as it relates to business in general rather than a reason to go for this particular business, the other points are just reasons why an individual might make the choice to use a black cab. What is missing is any reason why it should be a collective decision rather than an individual one. For a liberal, there has to be a compelling reason and none is offered. This article is a good example of why not to be a member, when you could be working to elect (or indirectly to have enobled) someone who doesn’t actually understand this.

  • Richard Harris 11th Jun '14 - 10:08pm

    This is barely worthy of an article. Most of us will never step inside a black cab because we can’t justify the cost when a bus or train or indeed a minicab is available. Everyone is facing change because of mobile internet technology, I don’t see why cab drivers and their patrons should be exempt. Baroness Sal Brinton may be a special case as she uses a wheelchair, but most wheelchair users have what I suspect would be a significantly smaller income, and so have to manage on public transport. Accessibility to public transport, especially outside London, now that’s a subject worthy of an article.

  • Peter Andrews 11th Jun '14 - 10:10pm

    Why does London not just do what other cities in the UK have done and insist that minicabs have meters installed and set minicab rates which are different to hackney carriage rates as they are not allowed (supposedly at least) to do street pick ups. In Leeds all mincabs have meters and have done for years now.

    Basically London need to sort out its regulation of minicabs not seek to keep technology at bay

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jun '14 - 10:38pm

    Cab drivers are small businesses and should be part of the liberal family. We should at least listen to them.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jun '14 - 10:49pm

    I’m not anti Uber by any means, I was just put off by some right wing sneering of striking cab drivers by the Spectator.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jun '14 - 11:20pm

    To clarify: I wasn’t put off Uber by the sneering, I just don’t like making fun out of strikers.

  • Charles Rothwell 12th Jun '14 - 8:08am

    Thanks to everyone for a lively debate and illuminating many points I would not have considered. Special thanks to Sanjay whose inputs I found especially interesting and with whose views I must say I have to agree. I use black cabs quite a lot when in London but I must say the fare levels are usually eye-watering. (I saw a German TV item on this (as there were taxi strikes there as well yesterday) (as there were in Milan when I was there two weeks ago!) and they gave an example of the equivalent of Uber there (“Wundercar”) charging a fare of EUR 6.00 as against EUR 19.50 by a traditional taxi operator!) I believe technology has caught up with the black cabs* and that its use/growth is inevitable. I also believe, however, that, as has been pointed out, the new technology should not just be allowed to let rip in an unregulated manner but needs careful consideration and implementation balancing consumer advantage with restrictions where these are absolutely essential (only). (*Had a personal experience of this as I asked a London cabbie recently if they still had to undergo the ‘Knowledge’ test and, if so, why as sat navs (which they all seem to use anyway!) had surely rendered this redundant. He was on me straight away and it was obvious I had hit a nerve. The more he went on about how ‘essential’ the test was, however, the more I could not help thinking to myself, “the gentleman doth protest…”!

  • This is a terrible article. To get home from central London costs me £40 by black cab and £15 in an uber. Unless black cab fares come down to something half-sensible, why would anyone with a choice take one? And most of the objections to uber raised by the author have been demolished by other posters. Except tax – I agree on that!

  • @Mark – but do you think the tax situation should be sorted on a case by case basis under public pressure as particular companies come into the public eye, or do you think legislators (like Baroness Brinton) should create a system which makes sense? They also need to make sure they are arguing for a system that is symmetrical, so if we want not just VAT but also a share of the corporation tax from the profits created by Uber’s servers overseas because the customers are in the UK, then we also need to be willing to give a share of corporation tax from the profits created by our banks’ computers to the countries where their customers are located.

    By the way UK legislators talking about tax evasion is hugely hypocritical because the non-dom exception is one of the best tax havens in the world. As London is a major business, art and cultural centre it is a lot harder for foreign tax offices to argue that moving there is pure tax avoidance and should be disregarded, whereas people moving to Belize have a much harder time.

  • Nick Carthew 12th Jun '14 - 12:20pm

    People seemed to have got hung up on the fact that the Cab trade was protesting yesterday only about the introduction of the Uber app in London.

    As Sal mentioned, and the black cab trade have tried to make clear, the protests were more to do with what they perceive to be the failures of Transport for London rather than about the use of new technology. Now I hold no particular brief for the cab trade and in my previous ‘life’ had plenty of run ins with them, but can I recommend people take a look at, a blog written by Richard Cudlip – @cabbiescapital- who is, as his Twitter name implies, a London (and Labour supporting for what it is worth)Taxi driver – which sets out why London’s cab drivers are so unhappy at the moment.

    Also worth noting is that Caroline Pidgeon is leading an investigation in to Transport for London’s London Taxi & Private Hire department due to the problems that exist there. For more info on that investigation go to

  • In 15 years of living in London, I’ve only used a black cab once.. because my boss was passing for it!

    Now I don’t use minicabs much either (twice in 10 years, both time to go to the airport at an ungodly hour. Living near night bus routes helps of course), both are too expensive, certainly when can’t share, but at least with minicabs you know in advance how much it will cost you, and you can make an informed decision.

    As long as the vehicle provided by Uber comply with the same standard the minicabs ( identify drivers for security, and insurance in order), then I don’t see the problem. Though I’d be more tempted to use Kabbee where it seems the pricing is more straightforward.

    Only reason I can ever think to use a black cab is if you need to transport something really cumbersome since they’re bigger.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Jun '14 - 8:53pm

    The differentiation between taxi and private hire is one which should have ended within ten years of the introduction of mobile phones. Outside of a handful of city centres, virtually no one ‘hails’ a cab any more. Most people have preferred minicab firms who they ring up and who arrive within minutes.

  • Stuart Winton 2nd Sep '15 - 2:43am

    Much of the misinformation in the Baroness’s post has been addressed previously, but I think she’s still a bit misinformed about certain matters. Essentially Uber in the UK is simply a slight variation on a traditional licensed minicab firm (‘private hire’, to use the legal definition), with the app merely represented a more modern and sophisticated method of hiring a vehicle than the telephone (or mobile phone in voice mode!). Similarly, the app calculates the fare more precisely than the standard minicab method, but even minicab fares have to be quantified somehow!

    I can’t understand the point about Uber not being responsible for its drivers. It’s surely just as responsible as any standard minicab firm via its operator’s licence, particularly since it’s a widespread industry model for despatch offices merely being platforms to connect passengers to self-employed drivers using their own vehicle, a la Uber.

    Keith Legg, there may be differences between London/Provincial England/Scotland, but the matters you refer to certainly aren’t different between the three regimes. Essentially all three legislative frameworks are similar.

    Specifically, it’s as easy to license a private hire vehicle (minicab) between the three regimes, give or take variations in individual licensing authorities. You CAN’T use a minicab to pick up passengers from a rank or hailed in the street, either in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK.

    Perhaps you’re thinking of Scottish local authorities which allow standard saloon cars to be licensed as taxis, but that’s no different from the rest of the UK, although London is obviously different in that respect.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Barry Lofty
    I for one am really pleased that the Lib Dems are highlighting Johnson and his government’s disgraceful indifference to the plight of the people they were ele...
  • Peter Martin
    Did LibDems make a similar call with Margaret Thatcher? It's probably not a good idea IMO....
  • Steve Trevethan
    Might our leaders put more time and effort into making our tax set ups clearer and more equitable, thus making them more efficient and less costly to government...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Michael BG, We can't all be pensioners and someone has to do the work to keep the wheels of the economy turning. It's not easy to have a lifestyle where we...
  • Martin Gray
    Johnson's a millionaire, & raked it in on the US ' lecture tour' .. Ex pm's are always in demand from one source or another - willing to pay amounts that m...