Uber used a private meeting with the transport secretary to push for congestion charges that a senior civil servant warned would hit poorer drivers hardest, records have revealed.
Chris Grayling was also lobbied by the Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, about opening up opportunities in Britain’s public transport network, according to the minutes of a meeting in October, revealed after a freedom of Information request by the Guardian.
The details – which have prompted opposition parties and drivers embroiled in a high-profile legal battle with Uber over workers’ rights to voice concern – have emerged at a time when Uber is preparing the ground for a long awaited initial public offering (IPO).
Under the heading “Future of Uber in the UK”, the minutes reveal that Khosrowshahi lobbied Grayling against the introduction of legal licensed private hire vehicle (PHV) quotas, especially in London, which he described as “an inappropriate market intervention by government”.
He pushed instead for “comprehensive congestion planning” so that vehicles with what he called “less utility” would be “disincentivised” to travel privately. At this point, the minutes state, an official whose name was redacted questioned whether Uber’s preferred model “wouldn’t be regressive and lead to higher costs for the less wealthy”.
The official’s concerns echo those of TfL’s own impact analysis of such a change in congestion planning, which found that private-hire cab drivers would probably end up paying it and that 71% come from designated deprived London neighbourhoods and 94% are from minority ethnic backgrounds.
James Farrar, branch chair of the IWGB United Private Hire Drivers branch and one of the drivers who won an employment tribunal ruling against the company, said: “Uber is cynically proposing a congestion charge knowing full well that drivers on below minimum wage will end up paying it while Uber and its passengers continue to get a free ride.”
Caroline Russell, national transport spokesperson for the Green party and a member of the London assembly’s transport committee, said city streets were more congested as a result of Uber deliberately keeping prices so low that passengers could use the service for “trivial local journeys”.
“There has to be a cap on private hire licences but I also think that congestion charging should not be paid by the driver but by the operator, who can pass it on to passengers if they wish,” she said.
The minutes also state that the transport secretary invited Uber to test new technology in to the UK and was lobbied by the Khosrowshahi about opening up public transport opportunities.
Khosrowshahi, who had flown to London in October to unveil an initiative designed to help Uber drivers buy electric cars, met Grayling and officers from the department on 23 October, days before Uber launched a court challenge to an employment tribunal finding that drivers should be treated as workers rather than self-employed.
The Uber chief, who was identified in the minutes as DK, “spoke about his vision for Uber as a full-scope transport platform, integrating public transport, with dynamic pricing and real-time travel info”.
On the government side, the minutes state, “SoS [the secretary of state, Grayling] expressed excitement for the future of mobility across the UK, and said he was particularly interested in exploring how operators like Uber can open up transport opportunities for smaller towns and rural areas that are less well served by regular public transport. SoS encouraged DK to explore this.
“DK spoke about Uber’s expansion in developing markets, and alternative solutions it is trialling. He said some of these solutions might work in rural UK markets. SoS expressed strong interest in this.”
The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said: “Chris Grayling’s secret meeting with Uber is concerning given the company’s appalling record on tax, workers’ rights and passenger safety.
“The transport secretary has thrown public transport into crisis and now wants to allow companies like Uber to profit from the chaos, hitting the poorest in society hardest. Successful public transport networks are publicly owned, accountable and run in the public interest – the complete antithesis of Uber.”
Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat chair of the London assembly transport committee, said: “For too long Uber executives have had easy access to 10 Downing Street and government ministers. When they wish to lobby it seems the door to Whitehall is always open to them.”
“I am seriously concerned that at these meetings Uber are seeking to deny the excessive hours that many Uber drivers are forced to work, which put drivers, passengers and other road users at serious risk.”
An Uber spokesperson said: “We want to be a partner to the cities we serve. Over time it’s our goal to help people replace their car with their phone by offering a range of mobility options – whether cars, bikes, or public transport – all in the Uber app.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “The transport secretary met Uber as a significant stakeholder to discuss a number of transport issues – just one of which was the government’s work on the future of mobility grand challenge.
“During this discussion, the transport secretary made it clear that major transport organisations like Uber should be exploring how future technology can benefit and better connect people right across the country.”