Uber-Divisive: Lawmakers at odds over proposal to ramp up penalties for ride-hailing drivers

A taxi is reflected in a window at the office of taxi-hailing service Uber Inc in Hong Kong, China August 12, 2015.   REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo
A taxi is reflected in a window at the office of taxi-hailing service Uber Inc in Hong Kong, China August 12, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

Hong Kong lawmakers have come out divided on a new proposal to clamp down on illegal ride-hailing services like Uber, with some worrying that the proposed stiffer penalties won’t deter participation, and others insisting the changes would do nothing to address the legitimate concerns fueling demand in the first place.

The comments come after the Transport and Housing Bureau (THB) submitted a paper to the Legislative Council on Friday proposing stiffer fines and license suspensions for drivers caught offering car hire services without the appropriate permits.

Currently, those caught offering illegal car hire services can be fined up to HK$5,000 (US$637), have their license suspended and car taken away for three months, and spend up to three months behind bars. Repeat offenders can be handed a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,270), have their license suspended and car seized for six months, and see as much as six months in jail.

Under the THB’s new proposal, however, first-time offenders could be fined up to HK$10,000 and have their license suspended and car seized for six months. Repeat offenders could get a fine of up to HK$25,000 (US$3,186) and have their license suspended and car seized for a year.

The THB did not propose changes to the possible prison terms.

The Legislative Council’s transport panel is set to discuss the proposal in a meeting on Friday.

Speaking on an RTHK radio program this morning, Liberal Party lawmaker Frankie Yick said that the government’s proposals don’t go far enough.

Yick, who represents the transport sector, said that the although the proposals were “better than nothing,” he doubted they would be enough to stop drivers from operating illegally.

He also suggested that the government should consider seizing a driver’s vehicle as soon as they were charged under the ride hailing law, and that the vehicle should only be returned if the driver was formally acquitted.

Also on the same RTHK program was Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan, who said that the tougher penalties don’t address the underlying issue, noting that under the current and proposed penalty system “only the drivers will get punished, but Uber and other unlicensed service providers will continue to exist.”

Wan said the government should instead try to regulate ride-sharing services like Uber.

That view appeared to reflect a recent assessment of the issue by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council, which noted that a disproportionately high percentage of complaints to transportation authorities (around 46 percent) were related to taxis, despite taxis accounting for a tiny fraction (about 7 percent) of public transport rides on a daily basis.

The assessment goes on to note that “without addressing issues such as availability, quality of service, and price competition” in the current taxi scheme, “there will be a shortfall between demand and supply, leading to general loss in consumers’ economic welfare.”

Sharing a similar view was Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam, accused the government at a LegCo hearing on Friday of “fail[ing] to accept new things” and suppressing ride-hailing services, while doing nothing to serve the demand for them, the South China Morning Post reports.

“We could actually regulate Uber and make it compete with taxi drivers,” he added.

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok, meanwhile, accused the authorities of bowing to pressure from the city’s taxi industry, which he branded “aggressive people.”

“Residents are not as powerful as those who hold taxi licenses,” he said.

As Coconuts Hong Kong explored in depth last year, Uber — perhaps the world’s best-known ride-hailing service — has had a tumultuous time since entering the Hong Kong market in 2014, but has continued to operate despite periodic crackdowns on its drivers.

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