CORRUPTION-TAINTED & ‘UNFIT’ UBER STRIPPED OF LONDON LICENCE

LONDON – London deemed Uber unfit to run a taxi service on Friday and stripped it of its licence to operate from the end of next week in a major blow to the U.S. firm and 3.5 million users in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

The capital’s transport regulator said the Silicon Valley technology giant’s approach and conduct was not fit and proper to hold a private vehicle hire licence and it would not be renewed when it expires on Sept. 30.

Uber, which has 40,000 drivers working in the capital, said it would contest the decision. Regulator Transport for London (TfL) said it would let Uber operate until the appeals process is exhausted, which could take months.

“Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications,” TfL said.

Specifically, TfL cited Uber’s approach to reporting serious criminal offences, background checks on drivers and software called Greyball that could be used to block regulators from gaining full access to the app.

Uber London General Manager Tom Elvidge made a combative response, saying the mayor, who supported the decision, and regulators had “caved in” to people who want to restrict consumer choice. He added that Uber would “immediately challenge” the decision in court.

New Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi, brought in to steer the company after a string of scandals involving allegations of sexism and bullying, later appealed to the city on Twitter with a self-deprecating style highly unusual for the aggressive ride service.

“Dear London: we r far from perfect but we have 40k licensed drivers and 3.5mm Londoners depending on us. Pls work w/us to make things right,” Khosrowshahi wrote in a tweet.

Uber has turned to users to defend itself in other battles around the world, and an online petition in support of Uber had gathered more than 390,000 signatures by evening in London.

‘SAFETY THREAT’

The loss of the San Francisco-based start-up’s licence comes after a tumultuous few months that led to former CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick being forced out.

Uber, which is valued at about $70 billion and whose investors include Goldman Sachs <GS.N>, has faced protests around the world for shaking up long-established taxi markets.

The taxi app has also been forced to quit several countries, including Denmark and Hungary, and faced regulatory battles in multiple U.S. states and around the world.

The company’s UberX offers rides in London by individuals with licenses issued by TfL, often in drivers’ personal cars.

London’s traditional black cab drivers have attacked Uber, saying it has undercut safety rules and threatened their livelihoods. Uber has been criticised by unions and lawmakers too and been embroiled in legal battles over workers’ rights.

London police also complained in a letter in April that Uber was either not disclosing, or taking too long to report, serious crimes including sexual assaults and this put the public at risk.

Of the 154 allegations of rape or sexual assault made to police in London between February 2015 and February 2016 in which the suspect was a taxi driver, 32 concerned Uber, according to the capital’s police force.

Uber said on Friday its drivers passed the same rigorous checks as black cab drivers, it has always followed TfL’s rules on reporting serious incidents and it had a dedicated team that worked closely with London’s police.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labour politician who has criticised Uber in the past, said he backed the decision to reject its application for a new licence.

“It would be wrong if TfL continued to licence Uber if there is any way that this could pose a threat to Londoners’ safety and security,” he said.

HATED BY CABBIES LOVED BY USERS

Drivers of London’s black cabs, who have snarled up the city’s streets in protest at the app over the last few years, welcomed Friday’s decision.

“Their standards are not up to scratch,” said 71-year-old Walt Burrows, who has driven a black cab for 39 years. “The black cab is an iconic part of London. What you get with a black cab is a metered fare and you know you’re safe.”

Uber is likely to come under more fire next week when it appears in court to appeal a verdict that granted two of its drivers rights such as the minimum wage, the latest “gig economy” battle between firms lauding the flexibility enjoyed by self-employed drivers and unions accusing them of exploitation.

Uber has, however, announced a series of changes over the last few months to improve conditions for its drivers, including the introduction of in-app tipping and plans to increase some fees.

Alongside Uber’s drivers, some of London’s 3.5 million registered users expressed concern as to how TfL’s decision would affect their lives.

“It will definitely impact my life,” said 43-year-old event planner Rimi Char, who uses the app at least once a week. “I have got used to the ease and cost effectiveness of using Uber and I’ve always had positive experiences.”

One of Uber’s British competitors in London, Addison Lee, is also awaiting a decision from TfL about a longer-term licence. The company declined to comment on Friday. – Reuters

Factbox:

Uber faces having to withdraw ride hailing services in London, its busiest European market, after local regulator Transport for London pulled the company’s licence for private hire cabs on Friday, a move Uber said it planned to appeal.

The online ride-hailing pioneer said it still operates in 96 European cities but has largely withdrawn its UberPOP service that relied on drivers without commercial licences after court rulings against it in many jurisdictions going back years.

Only in two cities across the region – Berlin and Athens – does Uber offer rides with officially licensed taxi drivers which allow passengers to hail UberTaxis as they pass on the street. In other cities, Uber’s private hire cabs must be ordered before a journey.

UberPOP remains available in a handful of cities in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Norway, Poland and Switzerland. Uber plans in 2018 to introduce ride-sharing and other services in Finland after the country recently cleared the way for such services.

In most remaining cities, Uber offers a range of private hire services using locally licensed drivers that include its mainstream service UberX, its up-scale UberBlack cars and other niche services including UberVan, UberGreen and UberExec.

The following are key legal challenges Uber has faced in Europe since it began operating in 2012 in London and Paris.

EUROPEAN UNION

A non-binding legal opinion issued in May 2017 by a legal adviser to Europe’s top court found Uber to be a transportation service, not just an online app, exposing it to further local regulation across the region. (http://reut.rs/2hnSz4s)

FRANCE

A French court fined Uber 800,000 euros ($957,000) in June 2016 for running an illegal taxi service with amateur drivers and slapped smaller fines on two executives in the first such criminal case against it in Europe. (http://reut.rs/2xnyFOy) Uber’s licensed private hire services remain popular in Paris.

ITALY

A Rome court banned unlicensed ride-hailing services such as Uber in April this year, but the ban was short-lived after the company appealed to a higher court. (http://reut.rs/2xzBtKw) Uber does not operate in Milan after a 2015 ruling against UberPOP that the smartphone app represented “unfair competition” to taxis (http://reut.rs/2jQ16S7).

DENMARK

Uber said in March it planned to withdraw from Denmark after the country passed a new taxi law that required ride-hailing services to install fare meters and meet other requirements(http://reut.rs/2xnxiPK).

HUNGARY

Uber pulled out of Hungary in 2016 after the government passed a law – in response to taxi operater protests – that would have blocked internet access to “illegal dispatcher services” like Uber’s ride-hailing app (http://reut.rs/2xWwYuO)

GERMANY

A German regional court in Frankfurt in September 2014 ruled Uber drivers must have commercial licenses to operate in Germany, leading the company to pull out of operations in several German cities. (http://reut.rs/2fnqKMK). It now operates only a limited set of services in Berlin and Munich.

($1 = 0.8360 euros)

– Reuters

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