Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 24 January 2008

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill




Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

24 January 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Billy Armstrong 
Mr Trevor Clarke 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Samuel Gardiner 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Daithí McKay 
Mr Alastair Ross 
Mr Peter Weir

Mr Donald Armstrong ) Department of the Environment 
Mr John Brogan ) 
Mrs Gillian McIntyre )

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):
Department of the Environment (DOE) officials Mr Donald Armstrong, Mrs Gillian McIntyre and Mr John Brogan will brief the Committee on the proposed goods vehicles (licensing of operators) Bill. On 24 August 2007, we were initially informed of the intention to introduce the Bill, and, on 26 September 2007, the Committee wrote to the Department requesting a timetable for the progression of the Bill. We have received the Department’s response, and we also have information relating to the Department’s two previous consultations on the matter, the first of which was in 1998 and the second in 2003. The Department has also notified members of its intention to rename the Bill from the road freight (licensing of operators) Bill to the goods vehicles (licensing of operators) Bill.

Perhaps, Mr Armstrong, you could give a brief run-through of what is anticipated in the proposed Bill, and after that, members can ask questions.

Mr Donald Armstrong (Department of the Environment):
Thank you, Mr Chairperson.

We have submitted a briefing paper on the topics that we wish to address. I will begin by describing the context from which the proposed Bill has emerged and by mentioning some of the terminology that is used therein. I will give a brief overview today of what we are aiming to do, but, obviously, we will return regularly to talk to the Committee in greater detail about certain aspects of the proposed legislation.

As a backdrop to the current situation, the Department of the Environment, through its road safety division, is responsible under the Transport Act ( Northern Ireland) 1967 for the regulation of vehicles that carry passengers or goods for hire or reward. The road safety division is responsible for developing policy and introducing legislation, which is then implemented by the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) from its headquarters in Coleraine.

The road-freight industry in Northern Ireland comprises approximately 35,000 vehicles, each of which weighs more than three and a half tons. Only a quarter of the industry is regulated. The regulated quarter is known as the hire-for-reward sector. In that sector, organisations carry goods for other people, that is to say, haulage companies. The unregulated section of the industry is known as the own-account sector, and that applies to organisations such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Those companies have a business to run, and part of that involves them carrying their own goods.

The proposals that we will outline are an attempt to widen the industry’s regulations in order to make them all-inclusive. That is the context in which the Bill is being proposed.

Moving on to the commitments that have been made in the past, the Chairman referred to the consultations that took place in 1998 and 2003. Following the consultation of 2003, the then Minister with responsibility for the environment, Angela Smith, gave a commitment in May 2004 that the development of the legislation would proceed, based on the proposals that resulted from that consultation. More recently, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, in evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee — which was considering how to combat organised crime — gave a commitment that the Department would endeavour to formulate proposals fairly quickly. That has not happened, because the timetable for that was based on one that was devised in Westminster. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee expressed concern at what it perceived as the delay in introducing the proposals. The proposals were part of the Westminster programme, and, with the restoration of the devolved Administration, they are now for the Assembly to formulate.

In 1991, before any of the consultations took place, a review into road-freight licensing in Northern Ireland recommended that the system should be expanded. The matter went out to consultation in 1998, and the responses to it were broadly favourable — although I hasten to add that neither consultation met with an overabundance of responses.

Members have been given a copy of the summary of the responses to the 2003 consultation. You will find that, although there were objections to expansion of the system, on balance, the responses either made no comment or were favourable. Some of the organisations that registered opposition to the 2003 consultation firmly support and are on board with the current process.

To understand the content of the consultations and the proposals, I refer members to the policy memorandum document that we have submitted. It sets out, in fairly good detail, the backdrop to the legislation and what the Department is trying to achieve. Given that that memorandum is comprehensive, covers the detail of the consultation and contains some valuable information, members may wish to lean heavily on it as a working document. Therefore, I commend it for your perusal and consideration.

I will talk about the communication process in which the Department is involved. Our basic philosophy is to make compliance with regulation as easy as possible, while making non-compliance as difficult as possible. Our goal is to introduce legislation and regulations to which people find it easy to adhere. Therefore, our consultations put great emphasis on talking to industry representatives to find out what is important to them, how they can work with the legislation, and then to introduce appropriate regulations. At the same time, we must be tough: there is no point in introducing regulations if we are not going to enforce them, so we must ensure that the enforcement regime is sufficiently tough and strong to make non-compliance difficult.

We have worked with a large number of stakeholders in the industry. Over the past couple of years, we have talked to stakeholders, including the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and the Freight Transport Association (FTA). Around two years ago, the then Minister with responsibility for the environment set up a road freight forum for Northern Ireland, through which departmental officials meet regularly with industry representatives. We talk about the issues that affect them and the proposals that we are seeking to introduce. Over the past few years, we have been in continuous touch with representatives of the industry to ensure that the key stakeholders are on board and are au fait with and supportive of our plans.

In the past couple of weeks, we have widened that net and spoken to other organisations, such as the Federation of Small Businesses. We have arrangements made to meet the Chamber of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Institute of Directors and local authorities. We have met with representatives of the transport managers from the 26 local authorities, and we hope to build on that interaction with key stakeholders in the industry to ensure that we deliver legislation that they are happy with and so that they feel that we have gone along with them to some degree.

We plan to embark on briefings with the freight industry over the next couple of months. That process will begin on 18 or 19 February and continue until the middle of March. We will invite as many people as possible from the industry to those briefings, and we will mail every single registered keeper in the own-account sector who has a goods vehicle that weighs over three and a half tons. We hope to explain what we are trying to do, the impact that it will have on them, how much it will cost and what the benefits will be. We will try to get feedback from those vehicle keepers so that we can introduce regulations that will be easy to work with. We will happily provide the Committee with a report of the outcome of those briefings.

There are four reasons for wanting to introduce the changes. The first, and overriding reason, is road safety. It is fairly common knowledge that the standard of compliance with roadworthiness in the road-haulage industry is not good. A survey that was carried out in 2005 showed that 18% of goods vehicles on the road were found to be non-compliant with roadworthiness standards. Although the results of a survey that has been carried out since then have not been finally tabulated, that figure has increased significantly. Therefore, the regulation and improvement of the industry will address a major road-safety issue.

There is a record of bad driver behaviour, such as drivers who abuse the drivers’ hours regulations, who overload vehicles, who do not properly check their vehicles daily. There is a history and a culture of non-compliance in the road-freight industry, and, on a road-safety basis, we want to address that issue through better regulation and sound enforcement.

To compound that, information that we are getting from traffic commissioners and the police in GB indicates that the standard of Northern Ireland haulage-industry vehicles that reach GB is not at all good. We must improve the image of the industry by ensuring that road-safety standards are implemented.

Secondly, there is the problem of illegal operation. There is a feeling that several operators are operating illegally, undercutting legitimate business and placing financial strains on it. We are trying to create a level playing field where everybody is regulated, where there is sufficient enforcement to impose the prescribed standard and where the opportunities to participate in illegal operations will be reduced.

Thirdly, as I said earlier, the head of the Civil Service gave the commitment that legislation would be introduced as a tool to aid the combating of organised crime. Organised crime still exists, but it needs vehicles to work. If we can tie down the vehicles and link them all to a registered operator, we will have another tool to help combat organised crime.

Finally, we face environmental pressure to ensure that the road-haulage industry plays its part in making sure that its operating centres and vehicles are as environmentally suitable as possible.

As a result of the consultations, several proposals were considered. The first was to do nothing, which is not really an option. That would mean that one quarter of the industry would remain regulated, with those operators paying the regulation fees and so forth, while the rest of the industry would not be regulated, paying nothing. That option is not equitable.

The second option was to adopt the same systems that are in GB, which has a traffic-commissioner system in which everybody is licensed.

The third option, which is that with which we went, was to adopt the GB model to some degree but to have local variations. That is the model that the Minister proposed to implement and that we hope to introduce through the proposed Bill.

What will the legislation mean in practice? I will run through the topics quickly, and we can go over them again in more detail at a later meeting to determine how the legislation addresses those issues. All operators will have to be licensed; there will be continuous licensing, which will be phased by renewals and reviews every five years; those applying for operator’s licences will be required to advertise locally so that representations can be taken from those who will be affected; environmental conditions will be applied to the operating centres from which the operators will work; and operators will be required to give maintenance undertakings on how they manage and keep their fleet, which is a big road-safety issue.

At present, the powers of traffic commissioners in GB are discretionary, while those in Northern Ireland are non-discretionary and limited. The powers that will be available to traffic commissioners in GB will be adopted by the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.

Finally, the Bill will create the power to impound vehicles that are used illegally. That measure will help to toughen our enforcement powers.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for that overview. The idea is that, as part of the Committee’s scrutiny process, you will return to the Committee in a few weeks’ time — at some time around 7 February 2008 — to provide more detail on the Bill. The next step will be to begin the same process that Committee members undertook — those of us who were involved — when scrutinising the Taxis Bill. We will also hold a few pre-evidence sessions. The Committee will receive a lot more detail on the proposed Bill as it progresses.

Do any members wish to ask any further questions?

Mr Gallagher:
I wish you all well with the proposed legislation. You mentioned poor road-safety standards, and some of what you said was quite shocking. The Committee has heard earlier evidence about that matter, so it is good to see that the problem is being tackled. As with certain other issues, if tougher regulations are introduced, enforcement will be important.

I represent a western constituency. There seems to be so many freight vehicles around. They are being driven on roads that are, in some cases, completely inappropriate for the size of the vehicles and for the speed at which they are being driven.

I have noticed that many vehicles have been registered in the Republic of Ireland and have been so for financial reasons. Where will they sit with regard to the enforcement of the proposed regulations? Many of those vehicles are owned by businesses in Northern Ireland, but the owners are able to — and therefore do — register them in the Republic of Ireland. I know that there are understandable financial implications in doing that, but I want to know how that sits with your proposed enforcement plans.

I also want to ask about driver licensing. Quite a number of workers are non-nationals and driving on our roads. I simply do not know enough about the qualifications that are required for driving in the countries from which they come. I would like to know whether those drivers are qualified to drive heavy goods vehicles here.

The use of mobile phones while driving such vehicles is a serious issue. Although driving while using a mobile phone may not be addressed in the proposed legislation, would you clarify whether it is being considered for inclusion?

The Chairperson:
Are you asking about the illegal use of mobile phones?

Mr Gallagher:
Yes. I simply want to clarify whether that matter is included anywhere in the plans to improve the regulations. I am sure that other members have often noticed that, in addition to driving at high speeds, it is not uncommon for drivers of those vehicles to be steering with one hand while chatting on their mobile phone, which they hold in their other hand.

I know that the drivers need mobile phones for certain purposes, but I know that members of the public, not just I, have observed lorry drivers having long conversations on hand-held mobile phones.

The Chairperson: 
Mr Armstrong, several members have indicated that the best way to proceed is for us to ask questions on the issues that concern us and then for you to address them.

Mr I McCrea:
I notice that fees will come into line with those that apply in GB. What is the difference between those? Obviously, they are increasing to cover the costs of implementing the regulations, but is there much of an increase?

Mr McKay:
You said that several objections were raised in past consultations; could you summarise those? Are any enforcement powers included in the proposed legislation to check the discs of lorry drivers regularly to ensure that they are not tampered with fraudulently ?

Mr Ross:
Two issues that you highlighted were the poor standard of vehicle maintenance and the extent of illegal operations. Given that you gave us figures for the approximate number of vehicles on the roads that were not up to the appropriate maintenance level, could you tell us the extent of the illegal operations? I presume that an approximate figure indicating the extent of the problem was in the House of Commons report.

Mr B Armstrong:
Any measure that brings more safety to our roads must be welcomed. We have to make sure that our roads are safe, and that the loads that are being carried are safely secured and driven.

Most lorries, especially long distance lorries, have Citizens’ Band (CB) radios. Those devices are normally hand-held, so some legislation should be introduced that states that they are necessary in order that drivers can communicate with each other. Sometimes life can be boring in a lorry, especially for long-distance drivers. We must take that into consideration and introduce legislation that addresses drivers’ use of CBs and mobile phones.

I presume that some hauliers operate here but are registered in other countries and use their vehicles more often in Northern Ireland than in other countries. How will you address that?

Mr T Clarke:
Having read some of the objections on the paper that has been submitted today, and having heard mention today of lorries that travel across the border, it is clear that that is an issue. Along the lines of what Billy has just suggested, will it not be seen as an unfair advantage to such operators if the industry in Northern Ireland is to be regulated, but some will be free to continue to operate as they have been in the Republic of Ireland? Will that not put pressure on businesses here? Those operators will have to adhere to stringent guidelines here, whereas those in the Republic can come up here, pick up the work, and continue to operate in the Republic’s system.

The Chairperson:
Members have highlighted several issues to which you can respond. Unless any member has anything further to add, you can address them. I am sure that we will hear much more detail on the matter as the Bill progresses. However, in the meantime, will you please respond to the issues raised that have been raised today?

Mr D Armstrong:
People who have an operator’s licence in Northern Ireland will be required to have an operating centre here. The only vehicles that can be used will be vehicles that are UK-registered under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 — also known as VERA. With an operator’s licence, one will not be able to have vehicles that are registered in the Republic of Ireland. That effectively treats vehicles that have been registered across the border as foreign vehicles in much the same way that other vehicles coming here from the rest of Europe are dealt with. That means that the only vehicles that will be linked to the operating centre are those that are registered in either Northern Ireland or Great Britain.

The use of mobile phones is outwith operator licensing. That said, penalty points that operators in the hire-for-reward sector received for the illegal use of mobile phones will count against them when their reputations are being considered. Although the illegal use of mobile phones and CBs is an issue, it is not within the remit of what we are talking about. We are concerned with the licensing of operators, with a view to ensuring that they maintain and use their vehicles more safely. If they do not comply — and get caught — it will go against them as operators, and that will be reflected in their licence. We will talk about that in more detail when we discuss with the Committee the standards that we want to introduce and that operators must reach.

Mr McCrea asked about fees. Gillian has conducted some research on the fees, and has ascertained that they will decrease.

Mrs Gillian McIntyre (Department of the Environment):
I can inform you of the fees, based on what they are in Great Britain. They cover five years. An operator who has one vehicle pays approximately £760; the cost is approximately £1,120 for an operator with three vehicles; and £2,380 for an operator with 10 vehicles. At present in Northern Ireland, only the hire-for-reward sector is licensed, and anybody who has more than four vehicles would be better off with the GB fees.

The Chairperson:
How much better off would they be?

Mrs McIntyre:
An operator with 10 vehicles would pay approximately £2,380 in Great Britain and £3,150 in Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:
Are any other supplementary fees or attendant issues being added?

Mrs McIntyre:

Mr D Armstrong:
Many of the objections that we received related to cost, and many came from the own-account sector. One must put the fees into context. One tyre for a commercial vehicle costs in excess of £200, and, in some cases, it can cost a lot more. Therefore, the costs that are involved are less than it would cost to tyre a lorry each year. In the overall cost of running a business, that is a small amount of money. However, I accept that people are unhappy with costs.

The Chairperson:
Whether that is a small amount of money depends on the individual’s profit.

Mr D Armstrong:
If a lorry owner is putting new tyres on a vehicle every year, the regulation cost is a small extra. It will be 20% of the annual cost of tyres. We are not talking about huge fees that will drive people out of business. Although most of the objections are based on cost, we are not talking about exorbitant amounts.

Mr T Clarke:
We are focusing on the least expensive aspect of the proposed regulations. My reading of what you are saying is that there will be particular yards in which lorries and vehicles will be kept. The single-man operator who drives his lorry home every night and parks it at the side of his house has never needed a property yard. Paying £700 for a licence for five years is not a huge amount, but I am concerned that a single-man operator seeking an operator’s licence will have to pay for a dedicated yard, and that will cost considerably more than £700.

Mr D Armstrong:
Most operators who have more than one vehicle will have a yard, so they will not have an extra cost. Some drivers may have one vehicle, drive it home and park it on their premises, provided that no objections are made when they apply for their licence and make their representations. We do not see any problem with that continuing.

The Chairperson:
From whom might there be objections?

Mr D Armstrong:
The neighbours who may be affected might object. Drivers who park their vehicle at their house at night may apply for a licence, and, as the process requires, advertise their intention. The application will go ahead, if nobody objects. However, there will be difficulties in instances where people have to specify an operating centre on their licence application, and “on the street” is not considered to be an option as an operating centre. People who currently park their lorries outside people’s houses at night will have to find somewhere else to park. Perhaps they could find a yard, or somebody could allow them to park the vehicle — off-road at night — on their property, for what is, hopefully, a relatively small fee. However, that would be specified.

Some operating centres will be more expensive than others, but those who park their lorries on the street will be directly affected because it will no longer be an acceptable practice.

Mr Gardiner:
Those who live beside people who own lorries will welcome that. On many occasions, I have been contacted by people who cannot, for instance, see out of their windows because of the lorries that are parked outside their house. The new regulations will help to tackle that, and I welcome them.

Mr D Armstrong:
I want to return to discussing the objections that we received. Most are related to cost, which is an issue. The Department will carry out impact assessments, not only on what the fee will be, but on the impact that the costs will have on the industry. The Committee will have access to that impact assessment.

Issues such as enforcement and the fraudulent use of discs are outwith the provisions of the Bill, but offences of that nature will reflect negatively on an individual’s reputation. However, when the whole industry is regulated, in broad terms, the fee receipt will be four times its current rate, with the result that much more money will be available to invest in enforcement. Enforcement will be stronger, which means that those who display fraudulent discs, increase drivers’ hours or overload their vehicles will have fewer opportunities to avoid being detected. Hence, road safety and compliance with the restrictions on drivers’ hours will be improved. By regulating the whole industry, the Department is providing a basis for fairer and more comprehensive enforcement.

In regard to vehicle maintenance —

The Chairperson:
Mr Gallagher wants some clarity on enforcement.

Mr Gallagher:
I am waiting to hear something about drivers’ licences.

Mr D Armstrong:
I apologise, please remind me of the question.

Mr Gallagher:
I asked about the proper licensing of drivers. My question is prompted by a serious accident that happened in County Cavan. The driver of the vehicle involved was not licensed and was also a foreign national. Does the Department plan to address matters such as that?

The Chairperson:
Was the driver not licensed as an operator or as a driver?

Mr Gallagher:
He was not licensed as a driver.

Mr D Armstrong:
That is a slightly different issue. The use of inappropriate driving licences should be picked up through enforcement; it is not specifically connected to operators. It is the duty of operators to ensure that those who drive their vehicles are appropriately licensed and insured and that their vehicles are in proper condition. Related offences will reflect on the suitability of the operator to hold an operators’ licence.

I have already touched on the issue of foreign-registered vehicles. When the Minister addressed the Committee a couple of weeks ago on road safety, she mentioned that the Department was considering introducing graduated fixed penalties and a deposit scheme. We will do more work on those over the next couple of months. The deposit scheme is specifically being introduced to address the problem of foreign drivers who commit road-traffic offences. With greater enforcement resources, we hope to detect those offenders. Instead of being issued with a fixed penalty, foreign drivers will be required to pay a deposit at the roadside for any offences that they commit. They will have to face the penalty or forfeit their deposit. That will ensure that they do not escape without punishment. They will be restricted from moving until they pay the deposit. Therefore, a mechanism is being introduced to deal specifically with foreign drivers who commit offences in Northern Ireland.

Have I covered all the points that Members wanted me to?

Mr Ross:
Do you have an approximate figure on the level of illegal operations?

Mr D Armstrong:
No, but we will try to find out. It might be quite a difficult figure to tie down — we can examine the illegal operations that have been detected, but I do not know whether we could provide the detail on the number involved.

Mr T Clarke:
I asked whether operators in the Republic of Ireland are not subject to the same stringent controls, which put pressure on operators, as their counterparts in Northern Ireland. If not, operators in Northern Ireland will find it more difficult to survive, because those from the South of Ireland could come here and take our work.

The Chairperson:
Could some sort of harmony be reached to make sure that that does not happen?

Mr D Armstrong:Obviously, the authorities here and those in the South share information on offenders. We will meet with our counterparts in Dublin to talk to them about our proposals, and we will consider what they are doing, what they have been doing, and the consequences of their policies. We can give that information to the Committee.

Mr B Armstrong:
The Road Haulage Association believes that the activity of vehicles that cross the border means that the provisions of the proposed Bill will not work in Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:
That was mentioned in relation to the 2003 consultation. Are you assuring us that you have had further talks with the RHA and that it is now on board?

Mr D Armstrong:
The RHA is very supportive of our proposals. Gillian and I were at a briefing with representatives of that body on Tuesday night, and they meet with us on the road freight forum. They are keen for us to press ahead with the proposals as quickly as possible. Their view is now different to what it was in 2003, and they are happy to verify that.

Mr B Armstrong:
Will the legislation in the Republic be tightened? There seems to be a weaker system there.

The Chairperson:
We have perhaps jumped over an issue.

You clarified earlier that you will be working with your counterparts in Dublin in an attempt to establish whether any complications that arise from competition between firms can be overcome and that no firm will be disadvantaged.

The other question concerned the Road Haulage Association. I know that you are working very closely with them at the moment.

Mr D Armstrong:
We are running eight of the freight industry briefings that I mentioned from 19 February to 12 March, and the Road Haulage Association has already indicated that it will come along to every one of those and actively support us. If that is a measure of its change of heart, that is very good news.

Mr Gallagher:
Can we have clearer information on the road safety aspects of the policy memorandum? The very first sentence of that document reads:

“Goods vehicles make a significant contribution to the number of people killed or seriously injured (KSI) in Northern Ireland.”

What exactly are those statistics? If you do not have them today, will you forward them to the Committee?

Mr D Armstrong:
Would it be all right if we brought them to the Committee when we come in two weeks’ time?

The Chairperson:
We would appreciate that.

Mr D Armstrong:
I ask the Committee to consider the timetable for the proposed legislation. Perhaps John will talk about how we are moving forward.

Mr John Brogan (Department of the Environment):

The Bill is currently being drafted, and that is going very well. We should have a reasonably complete draft sometime in February, and that will allow us to begin the formal tasks of submitting the draft to Ministers and getting the Executive’s approval for it by April 2008. With a fair wind, that will allow the Bill to have its First Stage in May, and its Second Stage, when it will be debated in its broadest sense in the House, will be in June. If we achieve those targets, the Committee Stage will start sometime before the summer recess. The hope is that that will allow the Committee to carry out a consultation exercise over the summer that is similar to that which was done for the Taxis Bill, thereby allowing the Committee to hit the ground running in September.

The Chairperson:
Thank you very much for that presentation; it has given us an indication of where we are going with the proposed Bill.

Gillian, you mentioned the related fees and the comparator between the GB fees and those in Northern Ireland. Can you send those to the Committee? We want to establish how advantageous the GB fees would be.

Mrs McIntyre:

Mr Gardiner:
How do our fees compare with those in the Irish Republic?

Mr D Armstrong:
I do not know; I will find that out for you.

Mr Gardiner:
It would be good to have a benchmark so that we can gauge what the situation is down there.

Mr D Armstrong:
We will check that out. In the 2003 consultation, we gave an undertaking that initially we would match the GB fees. However, it is probably worth mentioning that a review of the whole structure of the fees in GB is ongoing; therefore, they may be calculated using a different framework. We will give the Committee a comparison with the present fee, and we will try to find out what they may be once the review has been completed.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for that. Did you want to make another point?

Mr D Armstrong:

The Chairperson:
Thank you very much for your time. I am sure we will see one another fairly frequently as the proposed Bill proceeds.

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