Oddly, the email was sent by a company that TfL have taken no direct action against, and referred to an app that TfL have made no effort (and have no power) to ban.
When two become one
If that last statement sounds confusing, then this is understandable. It is because the consumer experience that is “Uber” is not actually the same as the companies that deliver it.
And “companies” is, ultimately, correct. Although most users of the system don’t realise it, over the course of requesting, completing and paying for their journey an Uber user in London actually interacts with two different companies – one Dutch, one British.
The first of those companies is Uber BV (UBV). Based in the Netherlands, this company is responsible for the actual Uber app. When a user wants to be picked up and picks a driver, they are interacting with UBV. It is UBV that request that driver be dispatched to the user’s location. It is also UBV who then collect any payment required.
At no point, however, does the user actually get into a car owned, managed or operated by UBV. That duty falls to the second, UK-based company – Uber London Ltd. (ULL). It is ULL who are responsible for all Uber vehicles – and their drivers – in London. Like Addison Lee or any of the other thousands of smaller operators that can be found on high streets throughout the capital, ULL are a minicab firm. They just happen to be one that no passenger has ever called directly – they respond exclusively to requests from UBV.
This setup may seem unwieldy, but it is deliberate. In part, it is what has allowed Uber to blur the boundary between being a ‘pre-booked’ service and ‘plying-for-hire’ (a difference we explored when we last looked at the London taxi trade back in 2015). It is also this setup that also allows Uber to pay what their critics say is less than their ‘fair share’ of tax – Uber pays no VAT and, last year, only paid £411,000 in Corporation Tax.
The average Londoner can be forgiven for not knowing all of the above (commentators in the media, less so). In the context of the journey, it is the experience that matters, not the technology or corporate structure that delivers it. In the context of understanding the current licensing situation, however, knowing the difference between the companies that make up that that Uber experience is important. Because without that, it is very easy for both Uber’s supporters and opponents to misunderstand what this dispute is actually about.