What are we to make of the recent decision to withdraw the licence for Uber, the digital minicab company, to operate in London ? As soon as the decision was announced, the two predictable sides – Roundheads and Cavaliers – saddled up and rushed to the battlefield. One side said that Uber was a terrible thing, interfering with an effective public and taxi system using exploited staff on the end of a computer programme that squeezed money out of customers when they were most at need. Others said that the black cab system was out-dated and expensive, and often wasn’t around when you needed them, or wouldn’t go where you wanted them to go (especially, the proverbial south-of-the-river).
Firstly, let’s note that Uber were not stopped because of Luddism or taxi monopoly. The reason for the decision was that they had failed to help the police investigating sexual assaults on passengers: not just once, but more than 40 times. But the debate needs to be had. Technology does move on, and the potential of just popping an address into your mobile phone to get a taxi immediately – one that will, via satnav, know exactly where you want to go – is obvious. Customers love the service – apparently half a million have signed an on-line petition in favour of the company. Some drivers like the freedom to log on or off, but on the other hand (or even the same hand – it’s not a zero sum activity) many would no doubt welcome a pension, or sick pay. If Uber (i.e. its users via charges) doesn’t pay for them, someone else will*. There is a legal case at the moment suggesting that Uber should pay VAT, rather than pretending it is some federation of independent traders. And who can defend managers concealing violent criminals from the police ?
Move on a moment. Amazon is a superb service. Any book I want, however obscure and even out of print, can be supplied to my doormat in a day or so. Lots of other products too, but let’s stick with books. However, they evade tax (see blog May 26 2013; it’s been going on a while) and treat staff badly. I use Amazon often, and swallow when I notice my bank account has been deducted for an ‘international payment’ between here and Daventry, or Doncaster, or Manchester. And then there is Google, which I use every day, and often. Twitter sometimes tells us of the trifling royalties – pennies and cents – Spotify pays to the creative people without whom it would have no business. Airbnb had a turnover of £657m in the UK last year, and paid £188,000 in tax. Ebay had a turnover of £1.6bn, and paid £1.6m in tax. That’s one-thousandth of their revenue.
Here’s my point. One group says these are companies that show the future of the digital economy, offer great advantages to consumers and users, and they are right. The sort of people who say they are appalling monsters who should be banned, the sort of people I have consorted with politically most of my life, are not only wrong, but have no chance of winning. But why cannot we have the advantages of the new economy, whilst staff are well paid and looked after, and whilst the companies make the appropriate contribution to public funds – to the schools, roads, law and health care they use and need ? As a tweet asked plaintively, “is being an arsehole an essential part of the business plan ?”. If these companies cannot exist without exploiting staff, stiffing governments and hiding from the law, then they are not viable businesses. But if they can, they should, and must be made to.
* interestingly, this is the mode of thinking that is thought to be very market-driven, up-to-date and realistic in relation to university fees. If students don’t pay, we are told, how unjust that the rest of us will have to.