TfL says no to new Uber licence. What does it really mean?

by Dave Hill

The decision of Transport for London (TfL) not to grant Uber a new five-year private hire operating licence in London on the grounds that it is “not fit and proper” to hold one will please some, alarm others and leave many a bit confused – after all, if they are such a bad lot, how come they were given their first licence, back in 2012? Let’s unravel.

Firstly, it is already clear that that despite today’s announcement “ubering” will not disappear from the streets of London any time soon. Uber has confirmed that it will appeal against TfL’s decision, which means it can’t come into effect until the appeal process is exhausted. That could take years. And, although I am no expert on the legalities of the matter, I wouldn’t put too much money on Uber ending up run out of town.

Secondly, take note that TfL’s latest decision about Uber is not about the company’s operating model as such or those heated arguments about whether or not the Uber app is a meter. TfL has always maintained that when Uber applied for a licence it had no grounds for refusing. How could it have when the company hadn’t even begun functioning in London at that time? There are still things TfL wants to establish about Uber’s operating model, though. And its general view that the company has been evasive in response to questions – and thereby shown a “lack of corporate responsibility” – about a variety of issues do inform today’s decision.

Thirdly, the “fit and proper” conclusion is mostly about TfL’s view that Uber has failed to give it straight answers relating to “issues which have potential public safety and security implications”. They include (and I quote):

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.
  • Its approach to how medical certificates are obtained.
  • Its approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained.
  • Its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London – software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.

Greyball is software tool Uber has been found to use elsewhere to identify people it characterises as using its service improperly but which licensing authorities regard as a device for evading their right and proper scrutiny as transport regulators. In Portland, USA, for example, city officials discovered they had been “greyballed” by Uber, meaning they had been tagged, sent fake images of approaching cars or abruptly canceled on when it was discovered who they were (see this report by the New York Times) .

Uber can be expected to contest TfL’s arguments comprehensively. I gather that lawyerly minds may focus on such matters as whether or not the company has given different explanations of how its booking process works to different transport authorities in different parts of the world and, if so, whether this amounts to grounds for being designated not “fit and proper” or doesn’t add up to a hill of beans.

Fourthly, there’s been plenty of chat about politics influencing this decision. Sadiq Khan has issued a short press release saying he fully supports what TfL has done, and there is bound to be speculation that the Mayor wanted his transport agency to do whatever was most likely to enhance his popularity. But, leaving aside the question of what course of action that would be – after all, Uber has 3.5 million users in the capital, not to mention about 40,000 drivers – there is the matter of TfL standing orders to consider. Standing order 129 (c)(ii) states that the TfL board, which Mayor Khan chairs, delegates “any function of TfL relating to private hire vehicles” to its managing director of surface transport, who, until the end of this year, is Leon Daniels.

Fifthly, watch this space. But don’t expect things to move any faster than the London traffic.

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