Uber London: Why TfL wanted to revoke the taxi firm's licence in the capital

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Popular ride-hailing app Uber has secured its right to continue operating in London after a magistrate upheld its appeal against Transport for London (TfL), ruling the firm is “fit and proper” to work in the capital.

The company’s application for a new licence was rejected by TfL in November 2019 in a move that sparked a ten-month battle over the company’s future.

TfL cited “several breaches that placed passengers and their safety at risk” when making the controversial decision, and Uber faced claims in court that sacked drivers had been able to continue picking up passengers thanks to a flaw in the app.

But on Monday, September 28, deputy chief magistrate Tan Ikram ruled Uber, which is used by some 45,000 drivers in London, is now suitable to hold an operator licence “despite historical failings” after hearing three days of arguments at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

So, here’s what you need to know about the saga:

Uber has some 3.5 million users in London (Reuters)

What happened on Monday?

In his judgment on September 28, Judge Ikram said that despite Uber’s “historical failings” he now found them to “be a fit and proper person to hold a London (Private Hire Vehicle) operator’s licence”.

The judge added: “Uber has presented no real challenge to the facts as presented by TfL though has challenged the suggestion that breaches were not taken seriously and any suggestion of bad faith on their part. Their approach has really been to explain why events took place as they did.”

Judge Ikram discussed issues of document and insurance fraud which had been raised during the hearings, acknowledging Uber had tightened up their review processes.

He continued: “On the evidence, Uber now seem to be at the forefront of tackling an industry wide challenge.”

He will now hear applications on the length of the new licence as well as what conditions should be imposed.

The judge said he took Uber’s “track-record of regulation breaches” into account but said the company had made efforts to address failings and had improved standards.

The judge added: “Uber does not have a perfect record but it has been an improving picture.

“The test as to whether Uber are a ‘fit and proper person’ does not require perfection.

“I am satisfied that they are doing what a reasonable business in their sector could be expected to do, perhaps even more.”

Tim Ward QC, for Uber London Ltd, previously said improvements had been made, including in the company’s governance and document review systems.

He had also told the court TfL’s decision to not renew Uber’s licence was tipped by a critical report on their technical systems, which have since been assessed as suitable.

Many of the arguments heard over the three days in court had focused on a vulnerability in Uber’s systems which allowed unauthorised people to upload their photographs to legitimate driver accounts, enabling them to pick up passengers.

This fraud involved 24 drivers exploiting a flaw with the app’s GPS to share their accounts with 20 others, leading to 14,788 unauthorised rides.

Marie Demetriou QC, representing TfL, said there had been a “catalogue of errors” in Uber’s management of the issue, including how they had raised it with TfL.

This was accepted as inadequate by Uber’s regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, Jamie Heywood.

He said: “It was not what we would do now. It was inadequate, we could have done better.”

The Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) accused Uber of a “cover-up” over the scale of the problem, which was “emphatically” denied.

Responding to the decision on Monday, the LTDA said the decision was a “disaster for London”.

The body said: “Sadly, it seems that Uber is too big to regulate effectively, but too big to fail.”

It said Uber had “managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the court”, adding: “(Judge Ikram) is playing Russian roulette with the safety of Londoners and I fear it’s only a matter of time until the next incident.”

Ms Demetriou said TfL could not conclude there was a cover-up of the information but said the regulator was “deeply unhappy” about communication with Uber.

But Mr Ward said Uber had implemented “rigorous” structural changes since the previous appeals, telling the court the company has moved on “considerably”.

He later argued that denying the company a licence would have a “profound effect” on groups at risk of street harassment such as women and ethnic minorities, as well as disabled people.

“London is a safer place with Uber in the market than without it,” Mr Ward said.

He also said Uber launched “an assault on the problem of manual error” which led to the belated dismissal of three drivers accused of sexual misconduct.

How did the saga unfold?

The furore surrounding Uber’s bid for a new licence in London initially erupted three years ago. Here’s how the drama unfolded:

September 2017

TfL first refuses to renew Uber’s licence in London after concluding it is “not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence”.

Explaining its decision, the regulator said the firm’s approach and conduct demonstrated a “lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications”.

In particular, TfL cited Uber’s approach to reporting serious criminal offences, how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained and explaining the use of Greyball software as being problematic.

June 2018

Uber is handed a 15-month probationary licence after it took the case concerning its bid for a new licence in the capital to court.

The firm admitted at the beginning of the two-day hearing that TfL original decision not to renew its five-year licence had been correct, but its lawyers said it had since cleaned up its act while continuing to operate in the capital pending its appeal.

September 2019

Uber is given a further two-month licence from TfL, subject to the same conditions specified by the licence granted for the preceding 15 months.

November 2019

TfL strips Uber of its licence after authorities found that more than 14,000 trips were taken with drivers who had faked their identity on the firm’s app.

The regulator said it had identified a “pattern of failures” by Uber, including several breaches that placed passengers and their safety at risk.

Uber appealed against the decision and was allowed to keep operating throughout the process.