NZTA has banned its staff from using Uber during work time or claiming Uber rides on expenses.
Staff at the Crown transport agency have been reminded the service is flouting New Zealand's laws and been issued a set of work-related guidelines, but policy not to use the service have been ignored.
Documents obtained by the Weekend Herald under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveal that since January last year the Crown entity has financed 56 trips with the global company it's at loggerheads with - including one expense racked up weeks after staff were issued a detailed reminder of the Uber ban.
Wide-ranging NZTA instructions to staff on Uber includes:
• Agency credit cards and expenses must not be used to finance Uber trips.
• Staff aren't allowed to pay for Uber trips out of their own pocket either, with any work-related Uber travel banned completely.
• The Uber app should not be downloaded onto any NZTA-issued or funded devices.
• NZTA email address must not be used to set up an Uber account, even for personal use.
• Secondary employment as an Uber driver may represent a conflict of interest under code of conduct guidelines.
• Staff can use Uber "in their own time and with their own money".
The NZTA has been cracking down on Uber for operating outside the law. Unlike regulations on taxis, Uber drivers do not require drivers to hold a passenger or "P" endorsement which includes a police check, a fit-and-proper person inspection and regular checks that the driver is able to provide a transport service. Instead a lighter check is done based on Ministry of Justice criminal records and NZTA driver licence records.
However, Government announced sweeping legislation changes on April 21 - safety reforms proposing ride-sharing operators like Uber should be subject to the same regulations as taxis.
The next day, the NZTA pushed on with an in-house crackdown.
App-based ride-sharing (RSS ) [sic] like Uber are not approved by the Transport Agency as Approved Taxi Organisations. However our people may not know that and may have been paying for RSS using Transport Agency credit cards and claiming RSS expenses...
A scathing email written by NZTA operational policy manager Richard O'Reilly laid further details bare on April 28.
"The risk is real, we know of drivers "approved" by Uber who have variously have [sic] been found by the agency in the past to be medically unfit to drive, have assault charges awaiting court hearings and so on," O'Reilly wrote.
"Given this safety risk that Uber are flouting the law that the agency is responsible for implementing and administering advice to all agency staff is that: do not use Uber for NZTA related transport, do not use corporate credit cards or other agency funding to pay for Uber services, do not take up secondary employment with Uber, staff can in their own time and with their own money use Uber if they wish but be careful."
A "travelling for work" policy was distributed to NZTA staff on May 3, ordering staff to keep clear of Uber while on agency business. But 26 days later the NZTA was billed for a $48.30 Uber ride - the 56th payment across 10 staff since January 1, 2015, a total of $1968.20.
The Weekend Herald asked the NZTA why Uber expenses had been approved against agency policy and what disciplinary action had been taken. The NZTA said questions had to be treated under another OIA "and we will respond as reasonably practical, and no later than the 20 working days".
Uber insisted its service is safe and drivers are appropriately vetted.
"The safety of our riders and driver-partners is a top priority," a spokesman said. "Our safe, fast and affordable screening process enables more Kiwis to access economic opportunities provided by ride-sharing, while delivering the safety outcomes the travelling public want and expect.
"We welcome the Government's recent commitment to reduce compliance costs and simplify requirements for small passenger services in New Zealand, and look forward to working through the details in the coming weeks and months."
The Ministry of Transport said it has "no specific policy regarding staff use of Uber" and "there is no financial information to provide" in relation to ministry employees using the service for work purposes.
Uber is calling
Uber is on the hunt for a lobbyist to take on the new job of head of government relations.
With Government proposing sweeping changes to the taxi industry - forcing ride-sharing services like Uber to start operating under the same regulation as licensed taxis - Uber wants someone experienced in influence as it braces for pivotal law reform.
Most importantly, the right candidate must be a "strong campaigner" and able to make sure New Zealand law will "support" companies like Uber.
"We are looking for someone to lead our Government Affairs and Public Policy teams in New Zealand," Uber's job description says.
"This role will involve establishing Uber's brand and profile with policy makers - including governments, third parties and academics, and, working to ensure that the regulatory framework in New Zealand supports ride-sharing apps like Uber."
Uber declined comment on the role, referring questions to the job description.
Unlike taxis, Uber does not require drivers to hold a passenger or "P" endorsement which includes a police check, a fit-and-proper person inspection and regular checks that the driver is able to provide a transport service. Instead a lighter check is done based on Ministry of Justice criminal records and NZTA driver licence records.
Minister of Transport Simon Bridges signalled in April that he wants to bring taxi companies, Uber and any other small vehicle services like dial-a-driver under one set of laws.
Labour transport spokeswoman Sue Moroney says Government needs to stand firm in its decision-making and not be influenced by Uber escalating its attempt to remain outside.
"I am critical of this Government's weak-kneed response to enforcing the current regulations on Uber, who are actively encouraging their drivers to break the law by engaging them without the required 'passenger endorsement' licence," Moroney said.
"It would be a travesty if the Minister Bridges was to change the laws that he has only just implemented in response to Uber openly flouting the law. That would invite other transport operators to break the law if they don't agree with it
"Public safety must be at the forefront of Government regulations for passenger services - not well-funded lobbying and law-breaking campaigns."
The new system has to go through regulatory process before it become laws with changes likely to be introduced in 2017.