A ride-hailing app which advised UK women "to use their own prudence in offering or accepting a ride" has been described as "disturbing" by the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
Veteran MP Frank Field also called for reform of the licensing system for ride-hailing, after two councils which licensed the app disclaimed responsibility, saying they did not check terms and conditions.
Ola, an Indian taxi-hailing giant which staged a high-profile UK launch in August, included the warning to women in a set of terms and conditions on its UK website.
The same terms and conditions also advised women passengers to share the ride details with family, friends, relatives.
After being alerted to the presence of the clauses, Ola changed the text of its terms and conditions, blaming a technical error.
An Ola spokesperson told Sky News the text was accidentally copied and pasted from a separate set of terms and conditions, which applied to a specific car-pool service that was previously offered only in India.
The firm stressed that the warning to women had never been part of its official UK terms and conditions, and that they were not in any of our current global T&Cs.
However, their inclusion has raised questions about the licensing process for ride-hailing services, which vets apps such as Ola to ensure they are safe and suitable for use by the public.
Ola offers ride-hailing services in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and South Wales, so it must seek approval from the local councils in these areas.
Two of the councils involved, Cardiff City Council and Bristol Council, told Sky News it did not check terms and conditions – which lay out the rules for what is permitted on apps – as part of its vetting process.
Terms and conditions that are entered into as part of signing up for the app are not part of the application process, said a spokesperson for Cardiff City Council, which granted Ola a five-year license on 22 May 2018.
The Council do have an overarching requirement to assess whether the applicant satisfies the ‘fitness and propriety test’ and the Council are satisfied Ola fulfil this requirement.
Bristol City Council, which granted Ola a five-year licence in September 2018, confirmed it had not checked Ola’s app.
As the licensing authority, we are responsible for licensing the company but not a related app,” a spokesperson told Sky News. The content of this is controlled by the operator.
Neither council said it would be taking action against Ola as a result of its accident.
For Mr Field, this raised serious concerns. These findings are really, really disturbing, he said. How have such requirements, which all but acknowledge that women are likely to be in danger if they use this platform, made it through the licensing process without raising any eyebrows?
He also called for a swift response from the government to proposals to reform the licensing process.
In September 2018, Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq’s filed an official report on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing, which called for the introduction of national minimum standards to be introduced across every authority in England.
James Farrar, chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, said the situation was urgent.
We are seeing licensing authorities right across the country failing to properly supervise the increasingly complicated contractual arrangements of private hire app operators, he said. As these operators seek to avoid public liability and employment rights obligations both drivers and passengers are unfairly exposed to risk.
In September 2017, Transport for London refused to renew Uber’s licence when it expired, saying the US ride-hailing app was not a fit and proper operator – a judgement the firm admitted was correct.
Transport for London eventually awarded Uber a temporary 15-month licence rather than the five-year licence it had been seeking.