TfL tells court: Our English tests for Uber drivers might be excessive, but it's the best we have

Hayley Kirton
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The tech giant is challenging new rules proposed by TfL (Source: Getty)

Lawyers for Transport for London (TfL) today told a court it is aware the testing it is proposing for private hire drivers, like Uber drivers, might be considered excessive, but it doesn't have a suitable alternative.

Uber is challenging the legal basis for rules proposed by TfL which would require private hire drivers to take a written English language test.

The company has accepted some degree of reading and writing ability is needed, but argues the test proposed at the moment – known as the B1 test – is excessive.

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Martin Chamberlain, TfL's lawyer, today said he accepted a more specialised test, which covered just areas TfL needed reassurance on, could be developed in the future and could be more suited to their needs, but the B1 was the only fitting solution at the moment.

"When you start with a problem, you start with the existing facts," he said.

Chamberlain noted drivers needed to be able to understand letters and the like which may be sent to them from time to time, as some of which may contain important safety information.

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He added that when TfL sent out a letter explaining the transitional requirements of the new test to private hire drivers, "a lot of them were completely confused and phoned the helpline".

"We say at least passing the B1 test provides some level of assurance that you have some knowledge of written English," Chamberlain said.

TfL contends it needs to introduce the tests as soon as possible in the interests of safety.

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However, Thomas de la Mare, Uber's lawyer, hit back, stating: "There is no question of urgency here".

TfL has described the standard of English needed to pass the tests as equivalent to what would be expected from a student in the early years of secondary school.

The lawyers on the case have established around 50,000 drivers will be denied a licence if they apply for a new or renewed one over the next three years if the test is put in place as it is currently proposed.

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TfL is also requiring private hire vehicle companies to have a telephone line where somebody can be reached in an emergency. Uber customers who have a complaint need to go through the app system to get in touch.

Chamberlain said, while it was not his client's argument that Uber's system was "terrible", "it's not as good [for passengers] as being able to speak too a real person in real time".

The TfL lawyer cited an incident where a woman contacted her driver regarding a lost iPhone, but was told her phone would only be returned if she agreed to fork out £40. The woman complained to Uber but said the company "was slow to respond even though I knew where my phone was through Find A Phone".

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Chamberlain went on to highlight a tweet from an Uber passenger, which read "Think my Uber driver is on a suicide mission today. Hope I get to the station in one piece". The lawyer noted Uber had been slower to respond via the social media platform than would be expected had the person used a telephone complaints line.

De la Mare argued Twitter was not a formal complaints platform and the company was actually applying a higher duty of care than it really needed to by "scouring social media" for such comments, after Justice Mitting, the judge overseeing the case, admitted he was not familiar with Twitter.

The hearing has now finished. The judge is expected to deliver his decision tomorrow morning.

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