London minicab charge discriminates against vulnerable, court hears

Union says congestion scheme hits BAME and female drivers and disabled passengers

Imposing the congestion charge on minicabs entering central London while exempting taxis discriminates against vulnerable drivers and passengers, the court of appeal has been told.

Around 94% of minicab drivers are from BAME communities, the court heard on Tuesday, whereas 88% of black cab taxi drivers are white.

The £15-a-day charge, which affects around 113,000 minicab drivers in London, also disadvantages women, who are more likely to work part-time, and disabled or elderly passengers who have fewer transport options as a result of the charge, the court has been told.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents workers in the gig economy, is appealing against a decision by the high court last year to uphold the congestion charge scheme overseen by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

Ben Collins QC, for the IWGB, told the court that the mayor had chosen to target a vulnerable group of drivers and passengers in order to reduce congestion in central London.

Minicab drivers, he said, are “working very long hours to make ends meet and provide for their families. These are very hard-working people for whom every penny counts.”

The appeal comes as the congestion charge rose sharply this month, from £11.50 to £15 a day, while incomes from fares plummeted due to the Covid-19 lockdown. The congestion zone covers 21 sq km. There are around 21,000 taxis in the capital that do not have to pay the charge.

Collins said the decision was a breach of duties under the Equality Act. Around 71% of minicab drivers live in the most deprived parts of the capital, he added. They earn, on average, £23,000 a year or less.

The authorities had failed to weigh up whether the policy of removing the congestion charge exemption on private hire vehicles, known as minicabs, was a proportionate way of meeting the aim of reducing traffic without reducing the number of vehicles that could carry wheelchair users, the court was told.

That traffic has been reduced by 1% was disputed by lawyers for the union. By discouraging minicabs, which are often have hybrid electric-petrol engines, while encouraging diesel-powered black taxis, it is alleged, the policy risks increasing pollution.

Minicabs can carry wheelchair users, though usually when they are not sitting in their wheelchairs, the court heard. Zero-emission vehicles are exempt from the charge.

Before the hearing, Faiz Saim, a London-based minicab driver and father of three, said: “The congestion charge increase is devastating for us. Especially on the back of Covid-19, which destroyed most of our business, I just can’t believe they’re doing this to us.

“The other day I only got two jobs in the morning and every penny I earned went on congestion charge payments. I’ve lost my weekends with my children, since I’ve got to be out there seven days a week now. [The mayor] should charge the companies instead of us drivers. Uber can afford it. We can barely afford to keep food on the table.”

Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the IWGB, said: “Faced with the greatest economic crisis in 300 years, it is now more important than ever that London’s low-paid minicab drivers don’t face a discriminatory tax on the poor. It is a shame that the mayor has forced drivers to litigate in order to protect their livelihoods.”

But Marie Demetriou QC, counsel for the mayor and TfL, told the court that they had considered the relatively greater impact on BAME, female drivers and disabled passengers and concluded it was a “proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of reducing traffic and congestion”.

They had calculated the move would result in quicker, smoother journeys, fewer accidents, less noise and better air quality. She denied that it amounted to unlawful discrimination.

“In striking the balance between competing interests under the Equality Act … the mayor’s margin of discretion is wide here,” she said.

Judgement is expected to be reserved.


Owen Bowcott and Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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