A Victorian Government Regulatory Agency has placed some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people at risk under what it describes as a “partnership” with rideshare giant Uber.
Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria announced the changes to the state’s Multi Purpose Taxi Program to allow Uber’s casual rideshare drivers to transport aged and incapacitated people.
The $60 million Multi Purpose Taxi Program (MPTP) provides a subsidy for vulnerable and disabled people who are unable to use public transport, paying half the cost of a taxi trip up to the value of $60.
Until recently, the scheme relied on regulated, accredited taxis, including specialist vehicles for wheelchair and incapacitated passengers. But under the government’s ‘partnership’ with Uber, the strict specifications and controls have been abandoned, effectively opening the way for any Uber driver to operate under the scheme.
The partnership between the government and Uber was negotiated in secret, without proper industry and stakeholder consultation or financial impact assessment on the taxpayer funded scheme.
Upper House MLC, Rod Barton has slammed the decision which will put some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people at risk.
“This ‘partnership’ deal means disabled, frail and impaired people will be transported in Uber cars that don’t have tamper-proof security cameras or fixed GPS tracking and are driven by people who are not trained or accredited to care for vulnerable people with special needs,” he said.
“The details of this sham ‘partnership’ between the government and Uber is deemed commercial in confidence and lacks proper probity and governance,” Mr Barton said.
According to the government department overseeing the regulatory agency, the decision was based on a limited trial conducted during the height of the pandemic in the Geelong area and involving around 170 trips. This was during a period when the total number of trips reduced by up to 90%. How is the data collected in any way reflective of normal circumstances and sufficient to make a judgement call?
“You can’t make a decision on a faux, window-dressing trial conducted under extreme and atypical conditions during a pandemic that did not consider the impact on regional areas or the needs of wheelchair and other special needs users,” Barton said.
“Uber’s predatory surge pricing will leave many disadvantaged people paying more; and there is no doubt that Uber will ‘cherry-pick’ jobs which will leave people requiring vehicles with wheelchair and other specialist equipment waiting on the kerb.”
“It costs $90,000 to put a wheelchair capable taxi on the road and around thousands every year to keep it running – it’s a specialist area requiring detailed driver training and ongoing compliance costs. The backdoor deal with Uber means that for many operators, this investment will no longer be viable, forcing them off the road.”
“In some country areas that also means wiping out the regulated taxi service, leaving communities stranded,” he said.
Barton also fears that the lack of pricing control over Uber’s operations means that vulnerable people will be out of pocket and potentially see part of their MPTP allocation eaten up by Uber’s predatory surge pricing.
The changes to the MPT Program have also opened it up to major rorting as it is a requirement that the card holder be in the vehicle to legitimately claim the travel subsidy. When using taxis, MPTP card holders are required to present their card to the driver to process the subsidy whereas when using the Uber App, card holders are only required to enter their card details once and the information is saved for all future trips. It is not uncommon for people to allow others to make bookings through their personal Uber account. One can foresee how easily this will be misused.
But Barton’s greatest fear is for the safety of passengers.
“The government decided that rideshare vehicles don’t need regulated security cameras such as those required in taxis which means there is a substantial safety and injury risk”.
“You can’t just let an occasional Uber driver pick up a person with special needs.”
“Uber has also gone to great lengths, spending up big on high-priced lawyers to say it doesn’t employ or is responsible for its drivers – if a special needs passenger is injured or worse, abused or attacked, the victim will have no recourse”.
“What’s more, sensitive information about the special needs passengers is disclosed via the Uber App which is an unacceptable breach of government policy”.
The Upper House Member also questions how the government can reconcile the fact that a large part of tax-payer dollars used to support the MPT Program will now go offshore in Uber commissions and their tax-dodging operations. “This organisation has defied regulatory responsibility at every turn – from operating illegally, denying its drivers rights under workplace laws, refusing to provide answers to the Australian Tax Office, hindering local police investigations by redirecting queries to their main office in California and even dodging questions at a Parliamentary Inquiry.”
Barton has today called upon the Minister for Transport, Ben Carroll to table the risk assessments, Ministerial briefs and financial agreements with Uber in Parliament.
“The Multi-Purpose Taxi Program is funded by the taxpayer to support people who are vulnerable and have special needs – it must be managed transparently and not used as a back-door cash cow for a company such as Uber that repeatedly argues that it is not responsible for its drivers.