Uber has been refused a new licence to operate in London in a shock decision by the UK capital’s transport authorities.
Transport for London said it had identified “several breaches that placed passengers and their safety at risk”. Uber immediately said it would appeal TfL’s decision, which it described as “extraordinary and wrong”.
In September, TfL had granted Uber a two-month extension to its licence with a number of conditions attached. The transport authority has raised concerns about passenger safety and security including the company’s approach to reporting serious criminal offences.
Uber was also criticised over how it obtained drivers’ medical certificates, how it conducted criminal record checks and its use of technology which allegedly helped it evade law enforcement. Uber has consistently maintained that the safety of its passengers is a top priority.
The latest decision does not mean that Uber’s taxis will disappear from London’s streets as the company can still operate until all opportunities to appeal are exhausted.
Helen Chapman, TfL’s director of licensing, regulation and charging, said: “As the regulator of private hire services in London we are required to make a decision today on whether Uber is fit and proper to hold a licence.
“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.”
Responding to TfL’s decision, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, said: “TfL’s decision not to renew Uber’s licence in London is extraordinary and wrong, and we will appeal.
“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.
“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.”
Despite the improvements Uber has made, TfL does not believe it is a “fit and proper” operator because of a pattern of previous failures.
A key issue identified was that a change to Uber’s systems allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to the accounts of other drivers. This allowed them to pick up passengers instead of the booked driver, and potentially allowed unlicensed drivers to carry out trips.
TfL identified at least 14,000 trips in which the driver was not the person who held the Uber account, potentially putting passenger safety and security at risk.
Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, said he recognised that the decision may be unpopular with Uber’s customers but that safety had to be the paramount concern.
“At this stage TfL can’t be confident that Uber has the robust processes in place to prevent another serious safety breach in the future.”
He added: “Regulations are there to keep Londoners safe, and fully complying with TfL’s strict standards is essential if private hire operators want a licence to operate in London.”
Uber says it has taken a number of steps to improve safety in the past two years, following accusations of sexual assault by a small number of drivers.
A new feature on the Uber app, introduced this month, automatically checks on the wellbeing of drivers and passengers when a journey is interrupted by a long stop.
Uber also introduced a button that allows allegations of discrimination to be reported, and it has collaborated with the AA to produce a safety video to educate drivers on road safety.
TfL’s decision is a major blow for the company in one of its largest markets.
The decision would also hurt Uber’s 45,000 drivers in the capital who work in precarious conditions, said James Farrar, chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the IWGB union.
“Many will now face the distress of facing not only unemployment but also crippling debt as they struggle to meet car lease payments.
“The terrible price of Transport for London’s inability to run a stable regulatory regime and Uber’s refusal to play by the rules will be paid for by the most vulnerable workforce in London. We are asking for an urgent meeting with the mayor to discuss what mitigation plan can now be put in place to protect Uber drivers.”
Uber has faced a difficult time in London since TfL first declined to extend the company’s private hire licence in September 2017.
After appealing the decision, Uber was granted a 15-month extension when a court ruled that the company was a “fit and proper” operator.
Uber was put on probation for the length of the extension and was given a set of conditions to be met before its licence came up for renewal.
In September this year, TfL granted a further two-month extension, rather than the standard five-year licence given to private hire operators.
Uber has faced increasing levels of competition from rival app-based taxi services including Bolt and Kapten.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, said: “The mayor has absolutely made the right decision in refusing to relicense Uber, and Londoners will be safer as a result.
“Unfit operators cannot get away with deliberately shirking their responsibilities. Uber have had 17 months to comply with the conditions of their temporary licence, and yet they have continually put Londoners at risk by letting drivers on the road who aren’t properly licensed or insured.”