Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 24 April 2008

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill: Road Haulage Association

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

24 April 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr David Ford 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Samuel Gardiner 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Alastair Ross 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses: 
Mr William Oliver (Road Haulage Association) 
Mr Phil Flanders (Road Haulage Association)

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone):
I welcome Mr Phil Flanders and Mr William Oliver from the Road Haulage Association. Mr Flanders is the Road Haulage Association’s director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Mr Oliver is the national chairman of the Road Haulage Association. You are both very welcome, and the Committee thanks you for giving up your time to be with us. We are in listening mood, but we hear good reports about the progress of the Bill. Perhaps you would like to make a statement, and then Committee members will ask questions.

Mr Phil Flanders (Road Haulage Association):
Thank you for inviting us. I do not intend to make a long statement.

The Road Haulage Association has supported the Bill from the outset. There is a great deal of concern in the haulage industry in Northern Ireland about some of the issues that the Bill addresses, and hauliers are keen to see the Bill become legislation as soon as possible

The Road Haulage Association has been involved in the education of hauliers for several years. We have had meetings with hauliers over the last few nights in an attempt to enlighten them about the effects of the Bill and what standards they will need to achieve as a result of its implementation. I have brought with me the GB ‘Guide to maintaining roadworthiness’, as the Committee may find it helpful.

The meetings have progressed well. Hauliers’ views have been mainly positive and many hauliers are already undertaking the necessary actions. What we need to do now is to ensure that a proper system is established so that hauliers can prove that they are doing what they say that they are doing. If hauliers or drivers receive a visit and/or inspection and their paperwork is in order it will make life much easier for the enforcement officer to investigate.

The substance of what we are going to say today has already been submitted in writing, and I do not want to read it out again. The best way to proceed is to take questions from members that Mr Oliver and I will be more than happy to answer.

Mr William Oliver (Road Haulage Association):
The essence of the Bill is that own-account licensing has now been brought to the same level as professional haulage licensing. Therefore the driver who has, up to now, been exempt — or did not have to be licensed as a result of hauling his own goods — will now require to be licensed.

That has traditionally been a grey area, particularly in the quarry sector. Drivers working for a quarry and hauling its goods have been required to be licensed, yet a quarry owner running his own vehicles has not. The Bill should level the playing field.

At present, only 15% to 20% of lorries in Northern Ireland require a licence. That is because most lorries belong to the own-account sector. By licensing everyone — and requiring everyone to pay a fee to become licensed — a much greater pool of money will be created for the purposes of enforcement. That is good news for the professional haulage sector as it is particularly keen on enforcement.

Mr Weir:
Thank you for your presentation. I agree that the legislation will create many advantages. Will the Bill improve road safety?

Mr Oliver:
From a wider road-safety perspective, more enforcement will lead to better vehicles on the roads. There are two key elements to running a road-haulage business from a road safety point of view. The first is the roadworthiness of the vehicles; the second is ensuring that drivers comply with rest periods and tachograph and drivers’ hours legislation.

Statistics show that Northern Ireland is the third worst area in Europe for compliance with the rules. As a professional organisation that represents professional operators, we want the compliance level raised. We may never have the highest rates of compliance, but we want to be among the highest. Great Britain and Germany have the highest levels of compliance in Europe, whereas we are dragging along at the bottom. The only two countries in Europe with worse compliance rates than us are the Republic of Ireland and Romania.

Therefore more compliance with the rules and drivers ensuring that their vehicles are roadworthy will have major benefits for road safety.

Mr Weir:
The Department’s approach will move drivers in Northern Ireland to a similar position to those in Great Britain. However, given Northern Ireland’s circumstances, small variation will be required.

Can we learn lessons from how the rules have been implemented in Great Britain? Should advice be given to the Department about what measures should be taken and what should be avoided? We want to ensure that the legislation is implemented as smoothly and as effectively as possible from the beginning.

Mr Flanders:
The two most important areas are road safety and the need for all operators to compete on the same level. If operators do not look after their vehicles, it will cost them more when the vehicles break down; however, if they have preventative maintenance systems, they will benefit from lower maintenance costs. Another benefit will be that they will not be targeted as much when they go abroad, particularly to Great Britain. When the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) is conducting roadside checks, it will pick on the vehicles that it believes to be breaking the rules. I hate to say it and I do not like that it happens, but vehicles from Northern Ireland are picked on.

If the system changes and if links can be established with the authorities in Great Britain so that they are aware of the situation of individual hauliers, those who comply with the rules should no longer be targeted. If all the measures are implemented properly, there will be benefits.

Mr Weir:
Operators from Northern Ireland are targeted because they are known to have the third worst compliance rate in Europe.

Mr Oliver:
The legislation will result in two major differences between the system in Northern Ireland and that in Great Britain. The first is that we will not have a traffic commissioner as such, although a departmental official may exercise the powers of a traffic commissioner. If the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) wanted to take action against an errant operator, the case would be dealt with in-house by the Department. In Great Britain the evidence would be presented to a traffic commissioner who would make a decision on the case. We have taken soundings on that, and the industry at large does not believe that that will be a problem; it seems to be happy with the proposal.

The other major concern is the environmental impact.

In the road haulage sector in GB, environmental issues have been high on the agenda for some time. There are many aspects to environmental awareness. The one that concerns hauliers — and people operating vehicles from an operating centre in GB — is that established hauliers must advertise in local newspapers any changes, for example, to the size of the fleet. Usually, someone will object to renewal of a licence. That has caused major problems, and it is something that the Department is looking at carefully with regard to the legislation.

Historically, we are largely a rural economy and many small hauliers are farmers’ sons who park their lorries in the farmyard. A neighbouring farmer may sell a field, someone may build a bungalow at the end of the lane, and then an objection is lodged that lorries are being driven up and down the lane.

Am I striking a chord?

Mr Boylan:
I am listening intently.

Mr Oliver:
That has to be looked at. It is the one element of the GB interpretation that could cause problems if it was extended to Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir:
The Department is aware of that problem and I am sure that it will take account of it.

Mr Flanders:
It is a problem in GB where an industrial area changes use. If former docks are turned over to industrial use, there tend to be objections, even though the docks were originally intended for industrial use.

In England, one of our members started his business in the countryside, but five years ago 200 houses were built round him. Most of the neighbours objected to the presence of the business, and he decided to close shop because there were so many restrictions. He could not move his vehicles before 7.00 am; he was not allowed to operate them after 6.00 pm; he could not have more than 10 vehicles at once, so he decided to close the business.

I would not want that to happen in Northern Ireland. There must be more flexibility and understanding. If someone wants to build a house in an area where there are businesses, they should accept that those businesses may pose problems for them in the future.

Mr Boylan:
Peter has already mentioned the point that I wanted to raise.

However, there is another issue: that of requiring all vehicles over 3∙5 tonnes to have an operator’s licence. In some cases, people operate large vans from homes and private developments. What can we learn from England about the effect of that? Some of those vans do not fit on the driveways of homes — they are parked over the sides of footpaths. Many constituents complain to me about that sort of thing. How is that problem dealt with elsewhere? Have such operators had to move to an industrial site? There are many such operators in the North.

Mr Flanders:
In GB, an operating centre must be specified. It will be inspected to meet certain criteria, the main one being that a vehicle must be parked off-road.

In some circumstances, an operator can apply for a vehicle to be parked at a driver’s house; however, a vehicle cannot be parked on a road or on a grass verge. The criteria must be met. Such permission has not been granted more than three or four times in the past 10 years.

In one case in Scotland, a driver’s wife had cancer and he wanted to be home every night. The haulier did not apply for an operator’s licence and he was called to a public inquiry. When the Traffic Commissioner for Scotland found out the circumstances, she explained to the haulier that if he wanted to apply for the licence, he could do so, as long as the criteria were met. The haulier succeeded in that. However, major road-safety and health-and-safety issues arise where vehicles are parked willy-nilly.

Mr Oliver:
In the past, members may have seen even coal lorries parked alongside houses. Our view is that provided the vehicle is off-road and on private property, one should be able to live with it. However, we are totally opposed to people parking such vehicles along the side of the road or half-way up a footpath, which is worse.

Mr Ford:
The association mainly represents people who operate for hire and reward rather than own-account operators. Given that your members would be subject to the new licensing measures, do you think that road-safety aspects of the Bill will make a difference? I do not expect you to produce statistics, but is there even anecdotal evidence that there will be safety benefits for your members?

Mr Oliver:
You should study the report that the DVA published in the past week, which contains details of a sample survey that it conducted last summer on road worthiness in Northern Ireland. I had the privilege to be with DVA representatives when they took samples for that survey.

In the own-account sector, there is a great deal of non-compliance. Professional hauliers tend to do more mileage and get stopped more, which means that they tend have their vehicles inspected and looked after. However, in the own-account sector, a lorry is low on the list of priorities of a driver — it is something that he uses like a trolley to deliver stuff. The lorry is the lifeblood of a haulier.

The day that I went out with the DVA representatives, we stopped a small 7·5 tonner with a fridge body, which the driver was using to deliver bacon and sausages. The vehicle was in an abysmal condition — even the headlights did not work. As part of the inspection, I asked the driver whether he was worried that the headlights did not work; he replied that he never goes out in the vehicle at night. [Laughter.] That is how some people think, so there is a major problem.

People in the DVA will tell you that instances of vehicles with broken springs and defective breaks are an everyday occurrence, particularly in the quarry sector. The work in quarries is heavy, and the trucks are not maintained as they should be.

Mr Ford:
How big is the issue of hauliers from Northern Ireland being stopped on roads in GB because it is assumed that they do not comply with the necessary standards? Is it an inconvenience that happens now and again or is it a major drawback?

Mr Oliver:
That question was raised at our meeting on Tuesday night at the Templeton Hotel. At that meeting there was a respected haulier from Ballymena who has a high-profile fleet and who is one of our best members — his fleet is 99% compliant all the time. He complained bitterly about the number of times that he was stopped in GB. A gentleman from the RHA who is based in GB explained to him that VOSA operatives are target-driven, which is the problem. Due to the high number of non-compliant vehicles that come from Northern Ireland, VOSA operatives think that if they stop a vehicle registered in Northern Ireland, as opposed to a vehicle registered in Yorkshire, they have better chance of getting a hit. Unfortunately, hauliers have to live with that. The evidence is not entirely anecdotal, as most drivers tell us that they are stopped regularly. Many hauliers from Northern Ireland are compliant, but many are not.

Mr Ford:
I would like to return to one of my hobby horses. Your presentation referred to the potential for the Republic of Ireland to introduce similar legislation — the Freight Transport Association told us that a couple of weeks ago. However, we received correspondence from the Department today that suggests that there is not much co-ordination. Some of us see a potential loophole without some co-ordination. Where did you get the information that the authorities in the Republic of Ireland were preparing to introduce similar legislation?

Mr Oliver:
From our meetings with the Irish Road Haulage Association, we were led to believe that it was likely that they would follow the same path as us. We were informed only today that they are backing off and saying that it is too expensive and too big a legislative burden. About 70% of my haulage work is in the South of Ireland, and there is no compliance there at all.

You would be lucky to find that a vehicle was stopped once a year, which sets a pretty bad example. Although we are targeted, Southern drivers in GB are targeted even more. On the route across to Holyhead, VOSA regularly pulls in scores of non-compliant Irish vehicles at night and at weekends. Some of the headlines in the trade press are horrific. Irish drivers who have been driving non-stop for 30 hours on the continent have been stopped. There is a major problem, and I despair if the Southern Government have now decided to back off introducing legislation.

Mr Ford:
I take it that the Irish Road Haulage Association agrees that legislation should be introduced.

Mr Oliver:
Yes, very much so.

Mr Gardiner:
I thank William and Phil for their presentation; they certainly have a wealth of knowledge on the subject. How can the Committee help with some of your difficulties?

Mr Oliver:
We want the Committee to give the Minister every encouragement to get the legislation on the statute book as soon as possible. It is then up to the Department to decide how and when it will implement the legislation. There are many operators to be brought under a licensing regime, and that will not happen overnight.

Mr Gardiner:
I agree. Does your association have any record of accidents that have been caused by your members? Is there a mechanism for reporting accidents that are a result of breakdown or careless driving?

Mr Oliver:
We do not have such statistics.

Mr Gardiner:
In the Irish Republic, are hauliers more considerate to domestic users of the roads, given that they generally pull over when they see a long trail of cars following them? That does not happen in Northern Ireland; perhaps that is a fault of the roads.

Mr Oliver:

There is a different culture down there. In the South of Ireland, a car driver who is travelling at 40 mph will pull on to the hard shoulder to let other motorists past. That does not happen here — even a tractor would not do that. [Laughter.]

Mr Boylan:
Thank you, Sam; I did not want to bring that up in case I was accused of bias.

Mr Gardiner:
I would not think that you were biased.

Mr I McCrea:
I thank the witnesses for coming. Mr Boylan said that vans that weigh more than 3·5 tons are to be subject to the regulations, and I am concerned by that. I feel that that will place an added burden on small enterprises, on which people rely for their livelihood. Vans are likely to weigh more than 3·5 tons because of their long wheel base, and similar legislation affects vans in GB. Will the legislation affect small enterprises?

Mr Flanders:
Probably, but if vans are brought under the regime, their owners will know what to do to keep them compliant. In the long term, they will probably save money on vehicle maintenance. They will have to pay a fee, but if everyone pays — rather than only the 20% of drivers who do so at present — the fees should drop and more money will be available to ensure that all drivers are compliant. A driver of a three-and-a-half tonner is probably not earning the money that he should because of the pressure from raids. If all drivers were compliant, that driver would probably earn more, so the extra cost would not be such a burden. Under EU law, all vehicles that weigh more than 3·5 tons must have a tachograph and if those vehicles are for the purposes of hire and reward, they must have an O licence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some own-account vehicles that are supposed to carry only their own goods operate as hire-and-reward vehicles. That takes away our bread and butter. If all vehicles were compliant with the law, the situation would improve for everyone.

Mr Oliver:
Few small businesses have vehicles that weigh between 3·5 tons and 7·5 tons. To avoid having to comply with the tachograph legislation when buying a van, most small businesses will deliberately target one that weighs 3·49 tons. The Committee may be concerned about tradesmen who own one or two vans, but the legislation applies only to a very few of them.

Mr I McCrea:
Those to whom it does apply will probably seek to get out of it.

Mr Oliver:
Many of those who previously owned 3·5 ton vehicles have probably moved up to 7·5 ton vehicles to reap the benefits of a bigger vehicle.

Mr I McCrea:
You said that 70% of your work is in the Irish Republic. I am concerned that the Irish Government are not acting to close the loophole to which David Ford referred. You could relocate to the Republic if you so wished. It would probably be in your interest to do so, given that 70% of your business is there — although I suppose that you would have to comply with GB legislation when your drivers went across the water. However, I am concerned that some of the regulations could force people out of Northern Ireland and into the Irish Republic to take advantage of that loophole.

Mr Oliver:
Mr Armstrong from the Department is here, and you should raise that issue with him. Flagging out was not an issue at any of the roadshows that we attended. It was an issue 10 years ago, when many people flagged out of Northern Ireland and went to the Republic because of changes in legislation. Some high-profile operators flagged out for a short time, but soon discovered that there was more to deal with than the regulatory scheme for drivers. When they ran into different problems in the Republic, they quickly reflagged their vehicles and registered them in the North again. Flagging out, therefore, is not a major problem.

However, a greater problem for the Road Haulage Association is the fact that non-compliant vehicles will enter from a country that shares a land border. The DVA staff who stop such vehicles will tell you that they do not comply and that regulations governing drivers’ hours in the South are totally ignored.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Mr Flanders and Mr Oliver, for taking time to come here today. We want to be as supportive as we can and to expedite matters as quickly as possible for the benefit of your industry. You are welcome to stay to hear what the departmental officials have to say.

I advise members that, following the previous briefings on the Bill on 24 January 2008 and 7 February 2008, departmental officials will update the Committee on the outcome of the public briefing sessions. Members should have copies of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill, its explanatory and financial memorandum and a summary of the main provisions. The Department has also provided a written report of the public briefing sessions that were held during February and March 2008, which members will find highly informative.

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