Here's why Uber's problems with driver safety checks might not actually be its fault

Uber x driverUberAn Uber X driver.
  • Uber lost its licence to operate in London on Friday after a shock decision by regulator Transport for London
  • One reason TfL gave was the way Uber carries out criminal record checks
  • All Uber drivers must undergo these enhanced checks to make sure they haven’t committed any crimes
  • But TfL has confusingly changed its policy around driver checks and Uber might not be to blame

One reason Transport for London (TfL) announced that Uber has lost its licence to operate in London on Friday was due to the way it carries out driver checks — but a source has suggested this was a “lousy reason” by the city’s transport regulator.

All cab drivers must undergo what’s known as a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, essentially a criminal record check to ensure no one unsuitable is driving cabs or taxis. They also need to provide medical certificates to show they’re fit to drive.

Until recently, Uber partnered with a UK startup called Onfido to process DBS checks for its drivers.

It’s important to note that Uber doesn’t carry out checks itself. Onfido is a third party which processes applications for criminal record checks and, according to its site, it liases directly with government agencies. OnFido is listed on the Home Office site as an approved provider.

On Friday, London’s transport regulator TfL said it was unhappy with the way Uber approached its enhanced DBS checks, but didn’t go into more detail. A spokesman also refused to provide further detail.

Here’s where it gets confusing.

Earlier this year, TfL quietly changed its policy around DBS checks. This meant it would only accept checks processed through its own contractor, GBGroup, and not third parties like Onfido. TfL said 13,000 drivers would need new DBS checks as a result. According to a Sunday Times article earlier this month, the bulk of those 13,000 drivers were Uber drivers.

TfL hasn’t explained the reasons for that policy change, or why it might be unhappy with Onfido or other third parties. Onfido has not responded to a request for comment, but told The Sunday Times the policy change was because TfL wanted to maintain an exclusive contract with GBGroup.

Business Insider understands that Uber began recommending TfL’s contractor GBGroup to its drivers at the beginning of this year because of the policy change. If this is true, it isn’t clear why TfL is still unhappy with the way Uber processes DBS checks.

A source close to TfL acknowledged it was “a lousy reason” to revoke Uber’s licence.

“This is partly down to TfL as well,” the person said. “It’s not unique — TfL consistently do things, then after doing them, end up having to pick up the pieces of their own misdemeanours.

“They try their hardest, but realise they have got it wrong after the event.”

Uber has outwardly said it doesn’t understand either. Fred Jones, head of cities in the UK and Ireland, told the BBC’s Today programme on Monday: “This decision was TfL’s decision, so sitting down with TfL representatives as soon as possible would be the most helpful thing to really understand their concerns.”

There were several other reasons that Uber lost its licence, such as its alleged use of Greyball software, which shows different versions of the app to different people and may have been used to fool regulators; its failure to report serious crime to the police; and its approach to obtaining medical certificates.

Jones acknowledged that Uber had failed to report a case of serious sexual assault. Met police inspector Neil Billany wrote to TfL earlier this year to complain about Uber’s conduct, saying a second assault could have been prevented.

“In this specific incident, we hold our hands up, we made a mistake,” Jones told the BBC. “We just didnt realise when the passenger wrote in how serious it [was].”Jones added that Uber had set up a “working group” to better understand how it could work with the police.

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