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TaxiPoint Interviews: Wes Streeting

In late 2017 TaxiPoint was privileged enough to be granted a brief interview with Wes Streeting MP.

Wes has been championing the taxi industry for a number of years and he has been highly pro-active in that time. As well as taking the time to speak to many people within the taxi industry, he has also headed up the All Party Parliamentary Group report into taxis.

I wanted to find out a little more about his background, including how he entered into politics, as well as his thoughts on the taxi industry, the PHV industry, Uber and the Government in general.

A lot has happened within the taxi industry since I spoke to Wes, nevertheless here is the interview in full.

How long have you been in the political arena, how did you start out and do you see yourself running for Labour leader?

I joined the Labour party when i was Fifteen and i've been involved with the Labour party for nearly 20 years.

I became interested in politics from a very young age, it was the 1997 General Election that piqued my interest in politics because it was in the news a lot and my school had a mock election. I put myself forward as a candidate and came a respectable 2nd to the Monster Raving Loony Party. In some respects I come from a political family, not in the traditional sense of parents or grandparents being MPs, or members of the House of Lords like many of my colleagues. My nan was very involved with the Labour Party in the East End of London and had very strong opinions, in fact my mum’s family have always been on the left of the political spectrum. My dad’s side is what I would describe as "working class Tory." My dad always voted Conservative, he could see Margaret Thatcher's appeal to the working man, in fact on my dad’s side I can only remember my great-uncle being a Labour voter other than myself. In short I come from a very different but a very political kind of family.

I was inspired by what people like Tony Blair were saying in 1997 and became interested in politics, so I joined the Labour Party and never looked back. With regard to the Labour leadership, i'm not sure that I would be elected. Oddly enough I remember at a young age hearing Jeremy Corbyn speak and at the time I was inspired by what he said so I suppose that I could be described as one of the original Corbynistas. My political views have shifted over the years and I believe that whilst I can understand the appeal Jeremy has to lots of young people and those within the Labour Party, the challenge he has is to win-over the voters he needs for Labour to win the next general election. That said, whenever I have my counterparts from the Conservative talking to me about Jeremy Corbyn, I point out to them that they should concentrate on their own problems, such as a weak leader in Theresa May. 

Would you ever consider running for London Mayor? 

Now that is an interesting question, I’ve never been asked this before.

It’s a great job, and I do think that you are more able to affect change running a city than being an MP in opposition. I was deputy leader of Redbridge council for a year before being elected as an MP and in that time I found that could get more done than as a backbench MP.

I believe that Sadiq Khan will be in his position for quite a long time. I do find it a little strange though that from a small minority within the taxi driving community I see Sadiq being slagged off all the time on social media, yet the irony is that he has done more for the taxi industry in one year than Boris did in his entire tenure. I think Sadiq is a great mayor and is making some great decisions.

All of this not withstanding, hopefully I wont be a backbench minister in the opposition for very long and we have a Labour government.

Does the Mayor, Chris Grayling or the Government in general have a duty to respond to the findings of th APPG report, or can they ignore the report ? 

They can ignore it, although they have a moral duty to respond to it. Being frank, most APPG reports end up on a shelf gathering dust, and in my experience most cross-party groups are talking shops, but don’t necessarily make an impact.

What I was really determined to do was to make sure that the APPG regarding taxis was not just a talking shop, but an entity that gets things done. We've been going for a year and we are already having an impact. John Hayes, the Transport Minister responsible for taxis, in the debate we had in Westminster, acknowledged the report and since then has actually met to discuss the findings in the report. Ultimately though it is Chris Grayling who is responsible for implementing any findings.

I speak to a lot of old school taxi drivers who are, traditionally Tory voters. They have said that they feel very let down as they have always assumed that the Torys were the party that was on the side of small business and would understand the pressures facing the taxi industry and help the industry, a lot of Tory voters now feel betrayed.

In John Hayes the trade has a friend who understands the industry. In Chris Grayling, we have a job to do in persuading him, although he does understand that there are serious issues facing the industry that can only be solved by the Government changing some of the rules and regulations surrounding the private hire industry and making sure that they are enforced better.

Ultimately to get the changes that are required, we need the Government to change some policies, we need the Mayor to go further than he has and also the trade itself needs to change as well.

Is the lack of a relationship between Sadiq Khan and Chris Grayling going to be a hindrance in implementing the changes that are required, especially given that Theresa May has inexplicably waded into the row surrounding Uber without seemingly, having any real insight into the issues surrounding them ? 

I think what the Torys have done surrounding Uber is quite frankly outrageous. Transport for London have enforced the rules, and the frustration that has been felt for years is that TfL haven't been enforcing the rules and that's why TfL has such a bad reputation with taxi drivers. For a Prime Minister and a party in Government to start campaigning against TfL and the Mayor is outrageous because what is Theresa May saying, that she doesn't care about people being raped and sexually assaulted knowing Uber haven't reported it to the Police properly?

For the Metropolitan Police to criticise Uber in the way that they have is unprecedented,   I have never seen the Police criticise a private company in the way that they have criticised Uber, so to see the Conservatives handing out leaflets across London, basically campaigning on behalf of Uber, I mean it was bad enough David Cameron in number 10 acting as a lobby for Uber, that was bad enough, now the Torys are actively, publicly, campaigning for Uber and I think its a disgrace.

I think the way the Tories treat Sadiq Khan is a problem, he is trying to get stuff done, he is trying to work with Government, and they just look for every opportunity to attack him. One of the things that frustrates me is that taxi drivers criticise him for not doing things that he is not actually able to do. One thing that we know needs to happen is that PHVs need to be capped in London, it's not just taxi drivers that think that, a lot of private hire drivers and minicab offices agree because the market is saturated, the roads are congested and journeys are taking longer which is no good for passengers. Also if you are an Uber driver who signed up a few years ago, you will see your income dropping because there is an over-supply in the market. Sadiq Khan has said he needs and wants the power to cap PHV numbers in London but the Government wont give him the power to do it. We need a constructive dialogue between the Mayor and Government but they just won’t engage properly and that is fundamentally wrong.

Could Greg Hands involvement in campaigning for Uber be deemed as illegal given that there are two live court cases in situ ? 

I don't think it's illegal, but it is most certainly improper.

Our job as politicians is to make fair judgements about the laws of the land and to try and makes sure that our society is regulated fairly and properly in the way that it needs to be. The problem is that there have been a whole number of problems brewing in the taxi and private hire industry, politicians haven't looked at it fairly and objectively, and I have been accused of being a taxi lobbyist because I’ve unashamedly stood up for taxi drivers because they have been getting a raw deal.

When I was campaigning for election I had been approached by a number of cabbies, including yourself, presenting me with a series of issues that I had previously been unaware of, issues that were fundamentally unfair. Since being elected I have looked at this in a great deal more detail, I think its unarguable that taxi drivers have indeed had a raw deal and there are a much wider set of issues facing both taxi drivers and private hire drivers that need to be addressed. Although I am standing up for taxi drivers, I am trying to get a fair deal across the board, that means taxi drivers, private hire drivers and passengers as well.

So, why are the government so reticent in dealing with the myriad of issues surrounding the industry and hiding behind the excuse that it's a free market economy and therefore it's survival of the most economically viable ? 

For too long, people in government have been looking at this through purely ideological terms and havent actually looked at this in detail. David Cameron and George Osborne, at the time didn't spend as much time as I have looking at the nuts and bolts and the detail of taxi and private hire regulations and it wasn't reasonable to expect them to. What really angers me regarding their approach is that they have looked at it in very simplistic terms and said "competition good, innovation good, technology good, therefore Uber is good and its all great." Subsequently, anybody that says "we need to regulate or do this, that or the other, they're Luddites, they're anti-competition, anti-tech and anti-innovation," I am none of those things, but I do see unfair competition in this city.

To all intents and purposes Uber are not this "great innovator," they're nothing more than a glorified mini-cab office with an app, and quite an exploitative one at that.

In terms of TfL rules, Uber should simply comply so as to get their license back, but there is a broader set of issues surrounding the company which also need to change. They need to treat their drivers better in relation to pay, terms and conditions, they need to pay their taxes in the UK, and they need to charge fares that reflect the service, let's be clear as to what Ubers business model is, it's about driving their competition off of the road with artificially low fares, made possible through tax-avoidance, low wages and venture capital. What they are assuming is, and it's what their business model is based on, is that taxi drivers will go out of business, mini-cab operators will go out of business and Uber will be the only show in town, at that point surge-prices become the new norm. Londoners are enjoying their cheap fares at the moment, and i understand why Uber are popular, but this is not sustainable. I think London is the only city where Uber does turn a profit and it's not a particularly great one. Across the world Uber's model is based on quite anti-competitive practices and it's the business model that I’m trying to challenge as much as anything else.

This, then being the case, why hasn't there been an investigation surrounding Uber operating a predatory pricing initiative ? 

I think the Competition and Markets Authority needs to do a review of the taxi and private hire industry in London generally. They need to look at Uber's business model because I think it is fundamentally anti-competitive, I think that they are operating a predatory pricing initiative, I don't think it is sustainable and ultimately when their competition is gone, Uber will charge higher fares. This is bigger than Uber because the whole economy is changing because of new technology. That doesn't necessarily need to be a bad change, and new technology is enhancing all of our lives, but we have to decide as a society as to whether we want this new technology to be a race to the bottom, in terms of wages, in terms of conditions as workers, or do we want a fairer economy that works for everyone. As much as Theresa May talks about a Government that works for everyone and an economy that works for everyone, she doesn't deliver in practice.

Given the regulation that taxi drivers and PHV drivers have to comply with from authorities across the country, could it then be argued that Uber drivers are in fact not self-employed? 

I think that Uber have showed their hand because on one hand they are in court arguing with the GMB that they don’t employ their drivers and their drivers are self-employed and therefore forgo all of the obligations that employers need to adhere to. However, when TfL threaten to take their license away they claim that TfL are about to put 40,000 drivers out of work, which is completely untrue because most Uber drivers will tell you that they also drive for Green Tomatoes, they’re Addison Lee drivers, they operate across a range of platforms. You can't on one hand say that we don't have any workers and then say that you are about to put all of our workers out of business.

We all know that the figure of 40,000 people becoming unemployed if Uber aren’t relicensed is complete nonsense, so therefore why, for example has Andrew Boff at the GLA picked up on this figure? 

Andrew Boff is "parroting," Uber's claims. I think it's very interesting that some Tories literally "parrot" the Uber press releases, they are mouthpieces for Uber, although this is not all Tories. One of the reasons that we are making an impact in parliament is that there are a number of Tories that have looked at this in more detail and seen the problems. You have a number of Tory MPs that see that there is a problem and are working on a cross-party level to try and sort it out.

TaxiPoint wishes to thank Wes for allowing us to conduct this interview. Note: John Hayes has been replaced by Jo Johnson in January's cabinet reshuffle since this interview.

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