London is a 'safer place' with Uber in the market, court hears

London is a “safer place” with Uber operating, the ride-hailing app has argued in its appeal against Transport for London’s refusal to renew its operating licence.

Arguments have begun at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in Uber’s appeal. Uber began operating in London in May 2012, when it was awarded a five-year licence.

TfL refused to renew the company’s licence in September 2017, but after the firm appealed against the decision, it was handed a 15-month licence by a judge in June 2018.

It was then given a further two-month licence in September 2019, after which TfL rejected Uber’s application for a new licence, citing “several breaches that placed passengers and their safety at risk”.

Deputy chief magistrate Tan Ikram will now determine whether the ride-sharing app is “fit and proper” to hold a private hire vehicle licence after the four-day hearing this week.

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

He told the court: “It is a different business to that which existed in 2017, when TfL refused the licence extension.”

He added: “There have been far-reaching developments relevant to that question since that decision.

“We accept its past conduct is relevant to that question, but so is the progress it has made.”

Mr Ward told the court Uber London Ltd had made several improvements, including on document verification and governance.

TfL’s rejection of Uber referenced a vulnerability in its systems which allowed unauthorised people to upload their photographs to legitimate driver accounts, enabling them to pick up passengers.

This was addressed by Mr Ward, who said “powerful protections” had been implemented to prevent this after it was exploited by a gang.

He said: “This is a matter of immense regret that this happened and a large number of trips were taken by the drivers before the issue was detected.

“This was not an endemic or widespread fraud.”

Mr Ward said Uber had raised the issue with TfL of its own accord and had not attempted to conceal the issue.

He outlined several measures that had been implemented, including a freeze on drivers who had not taken a trip for an extended period, real-time driver ID verification and new scrutiny teams and processes.

The court heard Uber has grown to around 45,000 drivers in the capital since launching in 2012.

“In a short space of time, the app has become integral to how Londoners and other people get around,” Mr Ward said.

He said 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.

Mr Ward told the court Uber had a strong commitment to complying with the regulations.

Referring to one condition of its current licence, which is thought to be unique, Mr Ward said that within 48 hours of a safety-related complaint against a driver, Uber is required to decide whether to remove or suspend the driver and notify TfL.

Giving an example of its compliance, he added the company had fixed a problem of premature insurance, where drivers would be allowed to take trips with valid insurance that would begin in the future, within three hours.

Mr Ward also said the company is in regular contact with police forces and has been praised for its co-operation with authorities.

The hearing continues.