David Behrens: Uber hits the brakes, but cabs have a long road to redemption

IT'S a mark of how low the bar has been set when the minicab licensing departments of our local authorities can seek to occupy the moral high ground.

Uber had its licence suspended in York

York has become the second city in the county to refuse the online firm Uber a licence to continue operating on its streets. The company was “systematically abusing” the local laws and “looking for loopholes” by using out-of-town vehicles, the local Hackney Carriage Drivers’ Association told the council.

I don’t doubt what they say; Uber has been embroiled for months in allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and intellectual property theft. But it’s hard to imagine a more transparent case of stones thrown from glass houses.

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In less select parts of Yorkshire, the licensing system for minicabs is about as effective as when the Wells Fargo rode the Wild West. Cowboy drivers are able to take to the streets with apparent alacrity with or without a license and with little fear of reprisal.

Just last month, the council in Bradford acknowledged that would-be cabbies had been asking family members to complete their application forms and to attend interviews on their behalf because they could not communicate in English. It wasn’t just a few drivers, either; it was as many as four in ten.

Three years earlier, it was revealed by legitimate taxi firms that other drivers in Bradford were crossing the border to rural Lancashire to get their licenses, bypassing the usual safety checks and avoiding their own city’s notoriously high insurance premiums.

Earlier still, one taxi in five had been ordered off Bradford’s roads after spot checks in the city centre, and dozens of private hire drivers from across Yorkshire had their licenses revoked for criminal offences which included sexual assaults, theft and drug dealing.

In Rotherham, the situation is far worse. The council there knew of the link between taxi drivers from the Asian community and the sexual exploitation of young white girls that had become rife in the town, but they chose to do nothing about it.

This is, of course, a far cry from York where applause rang out in the public gallery after councillors voted by 7-3 not to renew Uber’s licence. Sheffield had taken a similar decision last week, following London’s lead – though it has now relented, following what it calls “productive discussions” with Uber.

I am not reassured by any of this. Uber deserves what it gets – it is a company that has by its own admission paid computer hackers a £75,000 ransom and concealed for a year a data breach that compromised 57m customers and drivers.

But no-one else comes out of it any better.

In Leeds this Monday, it was the public that was held to ransom when around 300 private hire drivers staged a four-hour “slow drive” protest which brought cars and buses to a halt.

The chairman of the private hire drivers’ organisation, Asif Afzal, threatened the public with worse. If the council did not listen to his members’ concerns, he said, they would stage more action before Christmas.

Among these “concerns” was that drivers were being fined for stopping at bus stops which were hard to avoid because there were too few pick-up points.

The reaction of the public was predictable and overwhelming. The drivers, said one correspondent to this newspaper, were being asked to follow the rules of the road in the same way as everyone else.

Not all taxi drivers are rogues, but neither is the rogue element in Yorkshire an isolated one, and it beggars belief that a council can, so soon after Rotherham, have a gun held to its head by a sector that sought to drive a stagecoach and horses through the regulations and has made a mockery of what passes for a licensing system.

We like to think of cabbies as flat-capped individuals who have done The Knowledge, who don’t like going south of the river and who can regale you with a story about the time they had the Duke of Edinburgh in their cab, but those characters have gone. Today, you’re lucky if your driver can muster the knowledge to read the road signs.

For all of those reasons, I would feel safer this Christmas diving head-first into a furnace at Sheffield Forgemasters than getting into a minicab in the wild West Riding of Yorkshire.