Uber loses legal challenge against English tests for London drivers

The bad news just keeps piling up for Uber. The ride-hailing giant has lost a court battle against London’s transport regulators which have been seeking to raise the level of English spoken by private hire vehicles on safety grounds.

The new rules mean all private hire drivers in London who have been licensed since October 2016 will have to prove their ability to speak English — up to level B1 of the UK Home Office standard — through a test that includes a verbal language exam but also reading and writing components. Details of the test requirements can be found here.

Drivers can also prove proficiency to this level by showing relevant qualification documentation they already possess, such as a GCSE in English at any level.

The test itself costs between £180 and £200. And the obvious fear here for Uber is that its London business will lose a lot of drivers as a result. (Although an initial March 31 deadline for tests has been pushed out to September 30, 2017 — so there’s a little more time for drivers to prepare.)

Uber challenged Transport for London’s plans in court in August, arguing that the standard of reading and writing being required by the regulator was too high. However, today the judge disagreed, with Reuters reporting Judge John Mitting’s conclusion that: “TfL are entitled to require private hire drivers to demonstrate English language compliance.”

A Transport for London spokesman said Uber had challenged whether there was a need for the reading and writing element of the test, and also whether this should be at the B1 level. “But the judge agreed with us that it was appropriate to have a reading and writing test as well as speaking and listening, and that it be at that level,” he added.

Uber confirmed to TechCrunch it will be appealing the ruling. Commenting in a statement, London general manager Tom Elvidge described the outcome as “deeply disappointing” — claiming “tens of thousands of drivers” will “lose their livelihoods because they cannot pass an essay writing test.”

“We’ve always supported spoken English skills, but writing an essay has nothing to do with communicating with passengers or getting them safely from A to B,” he said. “Transport for London’s own estimates show that their plans will put more than 33,000 existing private hire drivers out of business. That’s why we intend to appeal this unfair and disproportionate new rule.”

TfL’s guidelines for the test do indeed include a requirement to “write a short letter or story (about 100-150 words) on a given topic” — so it’s a pretty short “essay writing test,” as Uber couches it — along with other components such as reading statements and saying whether they are true or false, and filling in word gaps in sentences.

Uber suffered another setback in London in October last year when an employment tribunal brought by two Uber drivers ruled they are workers, rather than self-employed contractors as Uber had tried to claim — making the company liable for paying holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the National Minimum Wage. Although Uber said it would appeal that case too.

While Uber lost its argument against stricter English tests today, the ruling was not all bad news for the ride-hailing giant, which did prevail in defeating three other TfL proposals — namely:

  • a requirement that it have a 24/7 phone line;
  • a requirement for private hire drivers to pay for commercial insurance at all times (i.e. even during periods when they are not using the car for ride-hailing);
  • a requirement that TfL must be notified by private hire vehicle operators of “material changes to their operating model that may affect their compliance with the statutory and regulatory framework for operators or any conditions of their licence”

Uber has also previously succeeded in challenging TfL’s original English Language requirement, which was initially targeted at drivers born in “non majority English speaking countries;” the regulator had to rewrite the rules to cover all drivers on the grounds that targeting drivers from only a sub-set of countries was discriminatory.

In a statement about today’s ruling, TfL’s director of service operations, Peter Blake, said: “The judgment today means that we can ensure that all licensed drivers have the right level of English, which is vital for customer safety.

“The court also recognised the need for passengers to be able to contact the private hire company they’re using should an emergency arise. We will reflect on today’s judgment and consider how best to deliver the further improvements we want to see to passenger safety and to standards across the industry.”

Private hire drivers in London are required by the regulator to renew their licence every three years — hence the September deadline only applying to relatively recently licensed drivers, as others will soon need to renew their licence anyway.

This post was updated with comment from TfL and details of the test requirements