TfL back in court to appeal ruling over telephone access for private hire companies

Transport for London have gone to the high court to overturn a decision that passengers need not always need telephone access when they book a minicab.

Under new rules proposed by the organisation, which is responsible for transport in the whole of Greater London, private hire firms will not be able to only rely on an app to book journeys.

But whilst this move will be welcomed by many, the multinational companies investing in tech only software for ‘self employed’ drivers will not be happy.

TfL has this week challenged a High Court ruling rejecting a requirement for passengers in Private Hire vehicles to be able to speak to a real person at all times during journeys, which was seen as a way of stopping Uber operating in the capital.

TfL claimed it is an important safety requirement and as a policy was well supported, particularly by disability groups.

Last year Mr Justice Mitting quashed the requirement on the basis that it was not proportionate.

His decision was welcomed by Uber, who are contesting the move by TfL but others have pointed out that using technology does not mean losing other forms of communication with customers.

“We have been working with companies who want to include an app based service which uses modern technology to streamline the business including a more efficient dispatch service and allowing customers to have details of their driver and vehicle in advance,” said Fareed Baloch of zoom,taxi.

“We believe a customer should have all the options available to book a minicab – app, website and phone. We also believe it is important that a customer should be able to talk to an operator if something goes wrong with their trip or needs support.

“Uber don’t have that local ‘phone connection’ with people, which is what other ‘PH’ firms take pride in. Phone contact with operator has been in the industry for decades,” he explained.

“Various customer segments like elderly people, those with visual impairments, and people not having a smart phone need this flexibility. This is the reason why offers the passengers of private hire companies the options to make a booking through their app, website and integrated phone. Bookings through all these channels go through our intelligent dispatch engine and are assigned to the right driver.”

But Mr Baloch added that the move could be welcomed by those concerned at the impact companies like Uber have had on the market.

“The requirement of having an access to an operator over the phone will create level playing field between local private hire firms and app-only companies like Uber or Gettaxi,” he said.

“They have been able to exploit various loopholes in existing legislation and there is no doubt that smaller businesses have been hit whilst there have been serious questions raised about safety as well as the amount of tax being paid.”

At the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, Martin Chamberlain QC, for TfL, said he agreed with the view that “sometimes there is no substitute for talking to a real live person” and said it would be impractical to have such a requirement confined to emergency situations, saying it would not reach the ‘customer level of protection’ which his clients were seeking.

TfL has said they wanted the new measures to prevent unlawful discrimination and allow third parties to check on the progress of a journey for example children travelling alone.

But Mr Baloch said that there were other ways of ensuring child safety, and pointed out that companies involved in the CSE abuse cases predominantly in the north of England had not been using an app.

“Using the case of child abuse as a reason to stop technological development is wrong and rather offensive. There are many ways to increase safety for vulnerable people including more thorough checks and mandatory training before licenses are issued – something we have been campaigning for.

“We are also shortly launching a new product designed specifically for vulnerable people and their carers and guardians which uses technology to keep people safe.”

Thomas Elvidge, Uber’s general manager for the UK and Ireland, had provided evidence that, in the UK, it had been decided to introduce a “click-to-call” function in the app for passengers and drivers.

He said the function would take about six months to implement.

“We will need this time in order to put in place the technology, infrastructure and resources needed to do this in a way that is consistent with our target of a live voice response to safety-related issues within two minutes.”

It is understood the cost will be passed onto the consumer.

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