Uber claims London’s English exam for drivers is “harder than the test for British citizenship”

Uber’s latest battleground.
Uber’s latest battleground.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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Another day, another legal battle for Uber.

The ride-hailing company is suing Transport for London (TfL), the local transport regulator, over rules that require “private hire” drivers from non-English speaking countries to pass a written English language exam. The rules also increase the insurance requirements for private hire drivers—a category that includes Uber as well as London’s minicabs—and instruct Uber to inform TfL of any changes to its business or operating model before they are made.

“This legal action is very much a last resort,” said Tom Elvidge, Uber’s general manager for London, in a statement. “After a lengthy consultation process with Transport for London, the goalposts have moved at the last minute and new rules are now being introduced that will be bad for both drivers and tech companies like Uber.”

Uber is worried the new TfL regulations will impede its efforts to recruit and onboard new drivers, a key part of its expansion in any market. Uber has fought cities across the US to avoid fingerprint-based background checks for drivers, which are slower and costlier to complete than electronic screening it conducts via a third-party provider. In May, Uber suspended service in Austin, Texas, after voters in a referendum upheld strict regulations—including a fingerprinting requirement—passed by the city council in December 2015.

TfL approved a plan to ”modernise London’s private hire industry” in March. The rules as outlined at the time noted simply that private hire drivers would be “required to demonstrate a certain standard of English.” The agency later released more detailed rule changes stating that, as of Oct. 1, private hire drivers would be “required to present a valid English language certificate with a B1 level of English on the Common European Framework” to either get or renew their licence. “Anyone who does not have the appropriate level of English will not be granted a licence,” the new rules state.

Qualifications for being a black cab driver in London are much more stringent. Those drivers must pass a test known as the “Knowledge” that requires memorizing London’s labyrinth of streets, businesses, and landmarks, as well as random details like the placement of flower stands and laundromats. The Knowledge is reputed to be the hardest test in the world, and aspiring cabbies spend years studying for it.

The standards for private hire drivers are comparatively easy. The Common European Framework defines a B1 language level (.pdf) as able to “deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken” as well to “produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest.” Sample B1 English exams from Trinity College London, which administers English language assessments, include passage-based reading comprehension questions and two short essays. (One sample prompt: ”Write an article for your school magazine [100-130 words] about why more students should learn languages.”)

It is unclear how TfL would identify drivers it wants to take the written English language test. Currently, private hire drivers in London state their ethnicity as part of the application process.

Uber said it supported testing drivers on their English speaking and listening abilities, but a spokeswoman told Quartz that a B1-level reading and writing exam is “not necessarily proportional to what’s required for the job.” The two-hour exam would cost £200 (about $260), which drivers would pay out-of-pocket.

“This exam is harder than the test for British citizenship,” Uber claimed in an email to its London riders on Aug. 8, a statement that seems like an exaggeration on Uber’s part. Citizenship requires passing a B1-level English language test from a recognized provider in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. It also requires passing a “Life in the UK” test that includes questions about British values, traditions, history, government and law.

“We responded to Uber’s letter and will be robustly defending the legal proceedings brought by them in relation to the changes to private hire regulations,” TfL said in a statement. “These have been introduced to enhance public safety when using private hire services and we are determined to create a vibrant taxi and private hire market with space for all providers to flourish.”