Uber’s systems allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to authorised accounts
Uber’s systems allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to authorised accounts © PA

London cab drivers’ opinions — according to cliché — are all too predictable. But so are everyone’s when it comes to who can drive a cab in London. News that Uber, the app-based ride-hailing service, has been stripped of its London licence for a second time was met with familiar responses on Monday.

Regulator Transport for London repeated long-held doubts that the US group would ever take safety rules seriously, after 14,000 rides were carried out by unauthorised drivers. It said it still “does not have confidence that similar issues will not reoccur”.

Trade unions shared concerns about safety issues but let slip others about competition. “It’s all about public safety,” insisted the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, before admitting it was also about Uber drivers “doing what they want and flooding London with vehicles”. Other unions managed variously to delight in and denounce Uber drivers’ unemployment. “It’s perhaps time for them to look elsewhere to work,” said the GMB. But the IWGB demanded a “mitigation plan . . . to protect Uber drivers”.

Left-of-centre London mayor, Sadiq Khan, agreed with the regulator and sympathised with passengers: “This decision may be unpopular with Uber users, but . . . regulations are there to keep Londoners safe.” Rightwing think-tanks railed at the regulator and sympathised with passengers. “TfL’s effective ban on Uber in London represents a dark day for competition,” said the Institute of Economic Affairs. “The app . . . will be sorely missed by more vulnerable groups, who might feel more at risk waiting on a dark kerb for a ride in the middle of the night.”

But being kept in the dark in a more alarming way is the real issue here — and something on which opinion should be united: Uber’s flawed systems meant that both the company and its customers could not be sure who certain drivers really were, and whether they were licensed or insured.

A technical vulnerability meant Uber allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to existing authorised accounts, and let dismissed or suspended drivers create new accounts. So on 14,000 occasions in late 2018 and early 2019, when an Uber car pulled up, customers had no idea what they were getting into.

All this from a company that aims to be a technology pioneer “setting the standard on safety” — by enabling passenger journeys to be tracked, addresses anonymised, support centres contacted, driver hours monitored, insurance packages provided and feedback shared.

None of these bells and whistles matter, though, if Uber cannot operate a driver authorisation process with functioning alarm bells. It says that it has since fixed the vulnerability, audited every driver, and adapted a US facial matching system for use in the UK. But it now has to convince the people whose opinions really count: the London magistrate judging its licence appeal, and the wider public.

Waga tail

The Wagamama tail is wagging the Restaurant Group dog, writes Kate Burgess. The noodle chain’s sales rose a tenth in the second quarter. On a like-for-like basis, they were up 6 per cent on the same period a year ago and well ahead of the rest of the industry.

This is faster than Restaurant Group’s other eateries, notably Frankie & Benny’s, founded by Kevin Bacon (not the Footloose one), and Chiquito. The group’s pre-tax profit before £100m of impairments was close to £28m in the first half. Wagamama’s earnings before odds and sods and excluding opening costs, interest and exceptionals were up 27 per cent to £16.7m in the second quarter alone.

However, 6 per cent growth in like-for-like sales is still the slowest increase since 2016 and Wagamama’s earnings look less appetising once the funnies are stripped out. Second-quarter earnings before tax, amortisation and depreciation but after exceptionals, interest and other nasties were £11m.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that the Restaurant Group’s shares fell 8 per cent on Monday. The company paid a rich price — £357m in cash and £200m in debt — to secure Wagamama’s growth. It meant a dividend cut and a rights issue, and a new top boss in the form of Andy Hornby, ex-HBOS chief. Now the group’s net debt at £320m or thereabouts is twice prettified earnings. Any sign that Restaurant Group’s tail may stop wagging will revive fears about the debt burden alongside the oversupply of eateries, and continued margin pressure. Mr Hornby has two priorities: repaying the debt and taking control of his tail

Frasers: profit of doom?

By renaming his Sports Direct business ‘Fraser’s’, Mike Ashley is, according to one consultant, trying to sound more upmarket and “shred the ‘tracksuit king’ image”. To Lombard, however, the strategy sounds more like that of another Fraser, the private from sitcom Dad’s Army: “Doomed! Doomed!”


Restaurant Group: kate.burgess@ft.com

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