Uber has again been denied licence renewal in London over safety risks

Two months after being given a two-month reprieve on its licence to operate in London, Uber has once again been denied a full renewal by the city’s transport regulator — which said today that it had found a “pattern of failures” which put “passenger safety and security at risk”.

Uber has confirmed it will appeal the decision.

The UK capital is a major European market for Uber, which claims to have 3.5 million users and 45,000 registered drivers in the city.

The ride-hailing giants’ troubles in London began in 2017 when Transport for London (TfL) made the shock decision to deny its licence renewal, citing a range of concerns including how Uber reported criminal offences; carried out background checks on drivers; and its use of proprietary software it developed that could be used to block regulatory oversight.

In the latest decision against Uber TfL concludes the company is not “fit and proper” to hold a private hire vehicle licence, saying it identified thousands of regulatory breaches — with a key issue being a change to Uber’s systems that allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts.

“This allowed [unauthorised drivers] to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips — putting passenger safety and security at risk,” TfL writes.

“This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers, one of which had previously had their licence revoked by TfL.”

It also identified another safety and security failure that allowed dismissed or suspended drivers to create an Uber account and carry passengers.

“TfL recognises the steps that Uber has put in place to prevent this type of activity. However, it is a concern that Uber’s systems seem to have been comparatively easily manipulated,” it adds.

The regulator says it identified further serious breaches, including several insurance-related issues. Some of these led it to prosecute Uber, earlier this year, for causing and permitting the use of vehicles without the correct hire or reward insurance in place.

While TfL highlights “a number of positive changes and improvements to [Uber’s] culture, leadership and systems”, since the company was granted a 15-month provisional licence by a magistrate in June 2018 — including noting that it has interacted with TfL in “a transparent and productive manner” — it concludes it cannot ignore the risks posed by “a pattern of failures” from “weak systems and processes”.

“This pattern of regulatory breaches led TfL to commission an independent assessment of Uber’s ability to prevent incidents of this nature happening again. This work has led TfL to conclude that it currently does not have confidence that Uber has a robust system for protecting passenger safety, while managing changes to its app,” it says.

Uber can continue to operate in London during the appeals process. So passengers will likely see no change in the short term. TfL says Uber has 21 days to file an appeal.

During the appeals process the company may also seek to implement changes to demonstrate to a magistrate that it is fit and proper by the time of the appeal hearing. So, again, it’s possible Uber could win another provisional licence in future, depending on the steps it takes to improve its systems. But there’s no doubt the regulator is in the driving seat at this point.

TfL says it will continue to “closely scrutinise” Uber during any continued operation, including checking it meets the 20 conditions it set out in September 2019.

“Particular attention will be paid to ensuring that the management have robust controls in place to manage changes to the Uber app so that passenger safety is not put at risk,” it adds.

Commenting in a statement, Helen Chapman, director of licensing, regulation and charging at TfL, said: “Safety is our absolute top priority. While we recognise Uber has made improvements, it is unacceptable that Uber has allowed passengers to get into minicabs with drivers who are potentially unlicensed and uninsured.

“It is clearly concerning that these issues arose, but it is also concerning that we cannot be confident that similar issues won’t happen again in future. If they choose to appeal, Uber will have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate to a magistrate whether it has put in place sufficient measures to ensure potential safety risks to passengers are eliminated. If they do appeal, Uber can continue to operate and we will closely scrutinise the company to ensure the management has robust controls in place to ensure safety is not compromised during any changes to the app.”

Responding to TfL’s decision in a statement, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern & Eastern Europe, Jamie Heywood, dubbed it “extraordinary and wrong”.

“We have fundamentally changed our business over the last two years and are setting the standard on safety. TfL found us to be a fit and proper operator just two months ago, and we continue to go above and beyond,” he said. “On behalf of the 3.5 million riders and 45,000 licensed drivers who depend on Uber in London, we will continue to operate as normal and will do everything we can to work with TfL to resolve this situation.”

On driver ID specifically, Heywood added: “Over the last two months we have audited every driver in London and further strengthened our processes. We have robust systems and checks in place to confirm the identity of drivers and will soon be introducing a new facial matching process, which we believe is a first in London taxi and private hire.”

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has tweeted a statement in support of TfL’s decision, saying that while it may be unpopular with Uber users their safety is “the paramount concern”.

Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has also now tweeted a response to TfL’s decision, dubbing it “wrong”.

“We understand we’re held to a high bar, as we should be. But this TfL decision is just wrong. Over the last 2 years we have fundamentally changed how we operate in London. We have come very far — and we will keep going, for the millions of drivers and riders who rely on us.”

This report was updated with additional reactions from Sadiq Khan and Dara Khosrowshahi