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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 26 March 2009

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

26 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs 
Mr David Ford 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Peter Weir

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):

The Clerk Assistant will take us through the advice that we received about the Minister of the Environment’s correspondence of 23 March 2009 outlining his concerns about the implementation of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill.

In that letter, the Minister requested the Committee’s views about the best way to proceed with the Bill. Therefore, in the light of the procedures that are connected to the scrutiny that we have given to the Bill already, I asked for procedural guidance from the Bill Office. Given the Clerk Assistant’s greater wisdom on these matters, he will take us through the Bill Office’s advice.

The Clerk Assistant:

The Minister flagged up three options to the Committee. Option (a) proposes delaying enacting the Bill; option (b) suggests enacting it as planned, but delaying its implementation; and option (c) proposes enacting the Bill as originally intended.

It is clear that during the Committee Stage of the Bill, the Committee dealt with the Bill — including consulting with stakeholders — as required under Standing Orders. Advising on the Committee’s procedural role in the passage of the Bill, the Bill Office quotes from Standing Order 33(5):

“On a report being made to the Assembly…the Bill shall be set down on the list of pending future business until a date for its Consideration Stage is determined”.

Therefore, from a procedural perspective, the report on the Bill and the Bill itself are in the custody of the Assembly; the Committee discharged its responsibilities during the Bill’s Committee Stage.

The Committee does not have a procedural role in deciding whether to bring forward the Bill, which is a matter for the sponsoring Minister, and it does not have a procedural role in determining the timetable to do so, which is a matter for the Business Committee. Therefore, in respect of option (a), the Committee has no procedural role in determining when a Bill should be enacted.

Mr Weir:

I appreciate that that information is factually correct, but are we not being asked to do something slightly different? Certainly, the Committee has no procedural role in determining whether to delay the enactment of the Bill, but is it not the case that the Minister’s letter is asking for the Committee’s advice and opinions on the matter? Irrespective of whether the Committee has any role in delaying the enactment of the Bill or in pushing it forward, it is being asked for its views and advice, rather than what action it might take.

The Clerk Assistant:

I would make the point that the Committee has reported its view on the Bill to the Assembly already. Therefore, the Committee’s view is with the Assembly and procedurally, it should be for the Assembly to consider any decisions that will be made on the Bill.

Mr Weir:

Ultimately, that will be the case. I am sure that we have all been members of various Committees at some stage. It is a useful device for the Department or the Minister to be able to say that although the Committee may not have a formalised role in the timing of the Bill or in how it will go forward, it wants our views and advice on it. That is the distinction in this case.

The Chairperson:

My difficulty is that the Committee has given its complete views on the Bill already and has spent a considerable amount of time on it, as did many of the staff, and it has also produced a formal report. It might be useful for the Clerk Assistant to take us through the advice that he has been given.

The Clerk Assistant:

I am flagging up that option (c) reflects the status quo, in that the Committee has reported on the Bill and matters will proceed as originally planned.

However, I consider option (b) to be different. That does not reflect any procedural issue from a formal procedural point of view; it is more an issue of Committee procedures concerning where it is reasonable for the Minister to seek the Committee’s views on further issues before Consideration Stage. That is not unreasonable. The timing and implementation of the regulations may be matters on which the Minister may wish to seek the Committee’s views.

However, the issue here is the Committee being mindful of the consultation that has been undertaken already and the matters that were not addressed in that consultation. The point with this option is that there are no specific proposals with it. It is very generic in the timing, rather than saying that the Minister is indicating which proposals are in question and whether views have been taken on them. Therefore, in some respects the advice on this option is in a different category, in that it cautions the Committee about offering views in the absence of specific proposals and offers clarity about whether any proposals have been consulted on with other people. It is clear that the Committee has undertaken consultation, the Minister has undertaken consultation, but this option is a broad brush on the timing of the implementation of regulations.

That is the advice on the three options.

Mr Weir:

Those are good points. The Committee should look at some matters before it decides what route it should take or what advice it should give. On the day that the Minister appeared before the Environment Committee, it was covering five or six topics, and it did not go into the Bill in a great deal of depth at that time. In his letter, the Minister refers to having a “number of concerns” about the implementation of the Bill. I think that it would be useful if we wrote to the Minister asking him to clarify the areas that he has concerns about. They would probably be similar to those that the Clerk Assistant mentioned when he discussed the advice.

If it is the case that we are being asked to consider and give advice from our point of view on whether we should give the advice and the green light and tell the Department to go ahead with everything, the Department should be supplying us with information on its areas of concern. For example, there may be issues on implementation that need further consultation, or the Bill may be fine on some matters but the regulations may need to be looked at.

Mr Beggs:

I am disappointed by the fact that the Committee went through the Bill line by line, it had extensive consultation, and it reached a view. Why should it suddenly do some sort of U-turn on the basis of a brief letter? We must also bear in mind the fact that in coming to a judgement, the Committee must also take on board the other correspondence received, such as that from the Road Haulage Association, for example.

The Chairperson:

We must decide, first of all, what we will do. The other correspondence verifies the sorts of representation and views that were expressed during the consultation process. However, as part of the process, we must decide how we handle the Minister’s letter.

Mr Gallagher:

I had a look at the Minister’s letter this morning. The Committee has done in-depth work and agreed to the Bill, and there will be an opportunity for any remaining concerns to be addressed as it proceeds through the Assembly. It does not seem to me to be a good idea to set some kind of precedent of knocking a Bill about when it has got this far. There is a clear passage for the Bill to follow, and we should run with the procedures that are in place. It would be a different matter if the gate were shut at this stage and that was the end of it. However, that is not the case, because the Assembly still has to have its say. Therefore, I would not be inclined to suggest that we go back over that ground.

Mr Ford:

As Peter said, when the Minister appeared before the Committee, we considered a number of issues and concentrated more on other items. The Minister’s letter is not the best piece of evidence that can tell us what is on his mind or the reason that he wishes to have any kind of delay. Procedurally, his predecessor introduced the Bill, the Committee did its job, and therefore, we ought to proceed to the enactment of the Bill. If the Minister comes back with a suggestion to delay some of the subordinate legislation, as the Clerk Assistant noted, further consultation may be required.

We must take account of the further evidence to which Roy referred. One of the people involved spoke to me yesterday, and it is clear that the respectable part of the industry has concerns about the aspects of the Bill that deal with safety issues. I would be extremely reluctant for the Committee to be seen to support a delay on that in any way.

Trevor Clarke cannot talk about operating centres because he is not here, and there may be technical matters in the Bill that are different. However, we have a duty to move as quickly as possible on road-safety legislation, given that we talk about it a lot. We also have a duty to support the responsible elements of the industry against the irresponsible elements.

Mr Beggs:

The other point that struck me during the Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill was that there was always going to be a rolling element to enacting detailed aspects of the legislation. There was talk about the possibility of introducing the legislation at different times as it applies to different vehicle weights, and that option remains open.

The Chairperson:

We will now go through the three options that the Minister outlined. Option (a) is to delay the enactment of the Bill, but we have been advised that the Committee simply does not have a role in determining when the Bill should be enacted.

Mr Weir:

I do not think that that is being asked of us.

The Chairperson:

I am sorry, Peter — I want to go through all the options first. I will then come to your point, because it is one of the options. The advice that we have been given states:

“in relation to option a as outlined by the Minister, the Committee does not have a role in determining when the Bill should be enacted.”

That is clearly a matter for the Minister — it is not our role. Do members agree that the advice that we have received on that point is acceptable?

Mr Weir:

I agree that that advice is right, but that does not mean that the Committee cannot have a view on the matter.

The Chairperson:

We can have a view on it all we like, but the advice that we have been given —

Mr Weir:

We are being asked for —

The Chairperson:

Will you bear with me for a minute, please? I will come to that very point.

Mr Weir:

OK; no problem.

The Chairperson:

Do members agree with the advice on option (a)? You clearly do not agree, Peter, but I will come to the issue that you raised.

Mr Ford:

I agree with Peter that we need to discuss the matter. The Clerk Assistant is absolutely right to say that, procedurally, the Committee has no role in determining when the Bill should be enacted. However, under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, it is part of our role to advise and assist the Minister if he asks for our opinion on such points.

The Chairperson:

We will start with the easy bit — option (b). There seems to be commonality between you and the DUP — or Peter at least — on that option.

Mr Ford:

There is probably not commonality between me and the entire DUP, but Peter and I seem to agree on this point.

The Chairperson:

Option (b) concerns the timing of the implementation of regulations. The advice states:

“this is therefore a matter in relation to which it is not unreasonable for the Minister to seek the views of the Committee to inform proposals that he may wish to make during the Consideration Stage of the Bill.”

Based on what David and Peter said, it might not be unreasonable to ask the Minister to clarify his concerns.

Mr Weir:

We may be overburdening ourselves with this issue; we could receive clarity on it relatively quickly. There are three aspects about which we are being asked for advice. That is different from saying that the Committee has a role in trying to force the matter down the way. It strikes me that if the Committee is asked for views on one of the three options, or is asked for advice of that nature, it is best to give that advice on the basis that if we get information on one element, we get information on the whole.

Once we receive advice from the Department, the most sensible way forward might be to go full steam ahead with the full enactment and implementation of the Bill. From an advice point of view, it might be that some issues about which there are concerns or that require further consultation might be difficult to implement and might delay the regulations. It is a judgement call that the Committee cannot necessarily make without a certain amount of information.

The Chairperson:

We are responding to a letter from the Minister —

Mr Weir:

I do not disagree with that. We need to find out — quickly — whether the Department has concerns about the Bill’s implementation and, if so, what those concerns are. Once we know that, we can offer informed advice.

The Chairperson:

Or we can offer a better-informed opinion.

Mr Weir:

Yes.

The Clerk Assistant:

I want to make another point for clarification. I flagged up the issue of the clear lack of detail in the Minister’s letter. Depending on the Committee’s decision, it may want to consider asking the Minister whether he has plans about how to consult on those matters, because the Committee has engaged significantly on a range of issues. The strong procedural point is that the Committee has reported its views to the Assembly. Therefore, the Committee would still be left in a difficult position if it is unclear about what the Minister intends to do — or has done — about consulting on those points.

Mr Weir:

I have no problem with that; it is a sensible way forward.

The Chairperson:

Really? In all probability, it is inevitable that we will be able to do nothing about two of those options. However, what you are seeking to tease out, Peter —

Mr Weir:

No; I am seeking to tease out issues that will apply in all three options.

The Chairperson:

To ensure that we are better informed on that option?

Mr Weir:

No, I want to ensure that we are better informed on all the options. Even if the Committee has no power to do anything, we can still give advice or a view on that basis.

The Chairperson:

My major problem with this matter is that there has been a wealth of consultation on it. An absolute wealth of information has been provided, and the Committee produced a huge report on the Bill. If the Minister has uncovered a difficulty with the Bill, he has provided very scant detail on that difficulty. However, do members agree that the Committee should seek further detailed information from the Minister about his concerns?

Mr Gallagher:

Possibly. However, should we do so on the basis of all three options or should we rule out one or two options?

The Chairperson:

I will be guided by the Clerk Assistant, because we are in uncharted waters.

The Clerk Assistant:

In reality, it does not matter, because if the Committee wants to return to all three options, it will still be seeking further information. My advice on a couple of the options will not change, and option (c) is not an issue, because it is a do-nothing option. The Committee can reasonably return to those options. As I say, my clear advice is that consultation is critical.

The Chairperson:

As it would be. Do members agree to establish the Department’s exact concerns and to revisit the matter pronto?

Mr Weir:

If we are taking it to the point where we are establishing the Department’s concerns, we must also ask the questions that the Clerk Assistant raised about consultation. He said that it would be useful for the Committee to get information about the nature of those concerns and about the Department’s plans to consult on those matters.

Mr Beggs:

Are you talking about the implementation?

Mr Weir:

Yes. If there is going to be additional consultation, what does the Department envisage? The Committee has gone through a consultation exercise; therefore, obtaining that information would be useful.

The Chairperson:

I would like to tease that out, because the Committee has an awful habit of overcomplicating issues — we must get details from the Department as to the Minister’s precise concerns. That is because, frankly, the Committee has no detail at all about them, which is a big concern of mine.

Secondly, in respect of the consultation exercise, it may be that once we find out what those concerns are, they may not be valid. Therefore, the question of whether there will be consultation remains hypothetical. We can ask what the implications will be if there is to be consultation, because there is a huge range of people in the industry for whom road-safety issues pose major concerns.

Mr Ford:

I believe that the Committee is expressing a slightly more positive view of the Bill than is reflected in what you just said about seeking detail on it. Certainly, as far as the road-safety aspects of the Bill are concerned, I sense that the Committee is minded to have the Bill proceed and wants to know the reason the Minister thinks it should be delayed, rather than asking that he tell us about it.

The Chairperson:

I believe that the Committee report perhaps reflected that.

Mr Ford:

Yes, and I think that we should put that point back to the Minister. I can accept that there may be a delay on some minor aspects of the Bill, but I am most opposed to any delay in implementing the road-safety aspects of the Bill.

The Chairperson:

That is the common feeling among members. Nobody wants to be in that position.

Mr Beggs:

I find it astonishing that the Department is taking a different view. Is that solely because it has a new Minister? We have had all the evidence from the professionals in the Department who have been consulting on the matter, and then suddenly, there is a potential change of tack.

Mr Weir:

With respect, I know that the letter is very short, but it actually refers to concerns about implementation. On all the options, the letter refers to enacting the Bill. Therefore, from that perspective, the general principle of enacting the Bill seems to have been accepted, regardless of the situation.

The Chairperson:

The letter suggests “delaying”.

Mr Weir:

Hold on a second — it states “delaying”, and that is why we must get more information. I do not think we should jump to conclusions.

The Chairperson:

“Delaying enactment of the Bill” is one of the points that has caused concern.

Mr Ford:

Surely that is the Clerk Assistant’s point. Procedurally, the Committee cannot delay the enactment of the Bill. Regardless of whether it happens next week or in a year’s time, the Bill can be taken to Consideration Stage only on the basis on which it left this Committee. Nothing is to be gained by that.

Mr Beggs:

Even at this stage, it is open to the Minister and others to table amendments.

The Chairperson:

The fact is that the Committee has no control over two of the outlined options. The third option proposes:

“enacting the Bill and implementing as originally intended.”

That is an option that we had presumed anyway once we had finished scrutiny. “Delaying enactment of the Bill” is a matter for the Minister.

The Committee is clear: it will get details of the Minister’s concerns and flag up the issue of consultation in the context — and Mr Ford was right — that the Committee has scrutinised the Bill substantially already and come to its own conclusions on the matter.

Mr Gallagher:

It should be added that the Committee is not minded to delay the Bill.

Mr Weir:

No, I am sorry; hold on a second. With respect, the Committee cannot ask for information that enables it to provide advice on one of these three options and then say that we are not minded to do one of them. The Committee must simply get the information. I have no problem with the rest of what has been said about that.

Mr Ford:

In principle, the view can be taken that the Bill should go ahead in order to deal with major road-safety issues, but there may be some minor aspects of the Bill on which the Committee is prepared to accept changes, such as regulations.

The Chairperson:

The view of the Committee is taken as read; the matter is already done and dusted. The Committee already knows and has agreed to what it wants, and the Bill was subjected to substantial scrutiny. That is formally on the record. The Committee now wants to establish the concerns of the Minister and his Department, which, as Roy correctly said, was ambitious about the project and about wanting to get the Bill through. The Committee will also flag up the issue of consultation.

Mr Beggs:

Are we asking about consultation on the implementation of the regulations or about some other consultation?

The Chairperson:

We are asking about consultation on delaying the implementation of the regulations. That does not mean that the Committee will take that route. However, we have been advised that there is potential for further consultation. That has implications for the Department’s taking a different route from that which has been outlined already to the industry and to the wider public.

Mr Beggs:

We have to reflect the advice that we have been given.

The Chairperson:

Yes; OK. Are members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Thank you.

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