Fate of Uber’s London licence to be decided on 28 September

By Robert Scammell

Uber will learn if it has regained a licence to operate in London on the 28 September, after Transport for London (TfL) deemed the ride-hailing giant not “fit and proper”.

It follows a hearing this week at Westminster Magistrates’ Court between Tuesday and Thursday. The court heard how “mistakes were made” by Uber over a software glitch that allowed more than 14,000 trips to be carried out by drivers who faked their identity on the app. That meant those journeys were uninsured and, in some cases, trips were with unlicensed drivers.

However, Tim Ward QC representing Uber this week said only 24 drivers exploited the glitch and that the problem was “not endemic or widespread”.

“It is a massive regret that this happened and a number of trips were taken,” he said.

“This has been resolved and there are a huge number of reasons Uber has tackled this to stop it from happening today.”

But Gerald Gouriet QC, representing the London Taxi Drivers’ Association, told the court that Uber had covered up the issue.

‘What they were telling TfL was that they had shut the stable door, but what they weren’t telling TfL was the existence of and the number of horses that had already bolted,” he said.

‘They were yet to be found and they were yet to be stopped. When TfL did investigate further, they were to discover 11,000 more such trips.”

Uber strongly denies any cover-up.  Marie Demetriou QC, representing TfL, told the court that the regulator was “deeply unhappy” about Uber’s communication but did not go as far as saying Uber withheld information.

Uber’s ongoing London licence battle

Uber was first denied a licence to operate in London in 2017 over safety concerns. The company was given a 15-month licence in 2018 following a court battle, and then a two-month licence in September 2019.

In November 2019 TfL did not renew Uber’s licence for the second time in two years, citing a “pattern of failures” that risked passenger safety.

At the hearing this week, Senior District Judge Tan Ikram heard Uber argue it was now “fit and proper” to hold a Private Hire Vehicle icence.

Since it first lost its London licence, Uber has taken a number of steps to improve safety, such as the ability for riders to share live location with trusted contacts, as well as an emergency assistance button to contact the authorities via the app. In April Uber introduced a new system that uses a combination of facial recognition and human review to verify drivers’ identities.

It has also implemented ‘Programme Zero’, which aims to prevent all breaches of licence conditions. TfL has previously acknowledged Uber’s progress.

Uber faces threat to biggest market in Europe

Uber’s 45,000 London drivers have been able to continue operating during the appeals process. Drivers can continue to accept rides while Uber awaits the verdict. If Uber loses, it is likely to appeal, which could see legal action continue for another year.

The UK is Uber’s biggest market in Europe, with London making up the majority of its £60m yearly revenue in the UK. It is a market it can ill-afford to lose, especially at a time when the pandemic has decimated the volume of rides taken by passengers.

Rivals such as Bolt, Ola, Kapten and others have been looking to win over Uber’s 3.5 million customers in the capital and will no doubt be paying close attention to the outcome of Uber’s London licence judgement.

Uber also faces legal challenges on each side of the Atlantic over the employment status of its drivers, which threatens to upend its entire business model. A judgement in a Supreme Court case brought by two former Uber drivers in London is likely to be given this month.


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