Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 09 October 2008

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

09 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Roy Beggs 
Mr Trevor Clarke 
Mr David Ford 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Alastair Ross 
Mr Peter Weir

Witness:

Mrs Beverley Bell (North Western Traffic Area)

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):

The Committee, today, holds its final evidence session on the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill and will hear from Beverley Bell, Traffic Commissioner for the north western traffic area. The Committee has heard the views of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), and last week, it heard evidence from departmental enforcement officers and planning officials, as well as from the Horticulture Forum.

A copy of Mrs Bell’s written submission on the Good Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill is included in members’ packs. It makes reference to the requirement in statue for Traffic Commissioners to produce an annual report. Members have also been provided with a copy of the Senior Traffic Commissioner’s annual report 2006-07, which include statistics on goods vehicle operator licensing. An electronic copy of the report has also been issued to members.

Tom Wilson, Freight Transport Association, has forwarded a paper regarding the function of an independent regulator for the licensing of goods vehicle operators, which is included in the pack.

I welcome Beverley Bell, Traffic Commissioner for the north western traffic area. It is good to see you. You are very welcome indeed. Thank you for making a submission to the Committee. You have around 15 minutes in which to make a presentation. We are flexible and will not press you to stick rigidly to the time limit. There will then be a question-and-answer session with members.

Mrs Beverley Bell (North Western Traffic Area):

I hope that this will not be like the European Court where the microphone is switched off after 15 minutes.

The Chairperson:

No, but I think that that is a good idea. I can think of a few cases where that would be very helpful and a few cases where an electric shock could stimulate witnesses into giving more information.

Mrs Bell:

I could use that for some of the solicitors who appear before me. I would love to be able to shut them up after 15 minutes. There is no danger of my speaking for too long, I assure you.

Thank you very much for inviting me. I love coming over here, and I love your Building; it is fantastic. I welcome the opportunity to speak with you and possibly engage in some debate, rather than make a formal presentation. I will say a little about my background: who I am, where I am from, what I do, and how I approach regulation.

My first point is that I have two factors: one is aggravating and one is mitigating. I will let you decide which is which. I am not a civil servant, but I am a lawyer, so I will let you decide which is aggravating and which is mitigating. It is important, as far as I am concerned, that the regulation that I do is independent and is not linked to the Civil Service.

I used to be a solicitor in private practice doing prosecution and defence work, criminal work, and transport law. That is where I first became interested in transport law. I was appointed in 2000. At that time, as I have mentioned in my written submission, the north-west traffic area had suffered from under-regulation for a long time, for a number of reasons. My job was to improve and increase the standards of the operators in the north-west traffic area. Having done so over the last seven or eight years, we are now moving on to the promotion of best practice. We have upped the skills of operators in making sure that road safety and fair competition are not jeopardised.

I am sure that when the Committee scrutinises a piece of legislation, it questions the purpose of the legislation, why it is being examined, and why it is being brought into play. That is what I talk to operators about when they see me at public inquiry. I tell them that my job is never about red tape; it is about the promotion of road safety and fair competition. Although I tend not to get too passionate in my work, it really is the driving force behind everything that I do, and everything that the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) does. I welcome debate on road safety and fair competition.

An aside to that is the environmental protection aspect of the legislation. We examine that when we look at operating centres. I will not talk about that in great detail in my presentation, but I want to flag it up and if you want to ask questions around the issues of environmental protection and operating centres, then I will happily do what I can to inform you how we implement that in the north-west traffic area.

The other key point for me is what we say to operators, and what operators say back to us, which is that ours is regulation with a light touch. I say that that is absolutely fine, but it is not with a soft touch — more on that later.

Another key feature included in my written representation is that I regard — and I speak for my fellow commissioners here — exercising of discretion as key to my role. I came over about five years ago when I first became involved in looking at what happens here, and spoke to some civil servants about regulation: how they regulate; how they grant licences; and how they take licences away. They asked me how that could be done without exercising discretion. My answer was the same then as it is now — I do not think that that can be done without discretion. It is a matter of how that discretion is exercised. That leads me to look at the separation of those powers.

I am completely naive as far as politics is concerned, and that is absolutely right, as my job is non-political. The commissioners and Government regard it as essential that we are not part of any political process, interference, pressure, or influence. For that reason, the licensing authorities — let us remove the word “commissioner” for the moment — have the respect and confidence not only of the industry but, most importantly, of the Government. We are currently going through a process with regard to the implementation of the Local Transport Bill [HL], and commissioners have appeared before the parliamentary Transport Select Committee. In a recent debate, Rosie Winterton, the Transport Minister, spoke about the high regard in which the Government hold Traffic Commissioners. Our independence of Government and the respect that we have from the industry puts us in a very strong position.

I have spoken about regulation in the north-west of England, but Traffic Commissioners regulate in generally the same way right across Great Britain. We adopt a two-pronged strategy, which I call the carrot-and-stick, or enforcement-and-education, approach. We try to both enforce and educate.

At public inquiry yesterday morning, I dealt with two operators who had not been not been doing what they should under the terms of their licences. One of the operators did not bother attending — which is always a bad start to a public inquiry — so I took his licence away from him. The other operator did attend the inquiry because I had recently taken his vehicles off the road for a few days. We were able to resolve matters — he is back on the road and everything is as it should be. That is an example of the enforcement aspect of our regulation.

However, education is also key to our regulation. Yesterday afternoon, I made a presentation to around 170 operators from all over the country to alert them to the new initiatives that are being introduced by VOSA and the European Parliament and to ensure that they are complying with what is required.

As I said in my introduction to those operators, commissioners can suffer from their press. We are reported in the trade magazines ‘Commercial Motor’ and ‘Coach and Bus Week’, and it can seem as though we are harsh or strict and wanting to take action against operators. The advantage of engaging with the industry — and attending meetings such as this one and the Select Committee — is that people can see us as individuals who are committed to promoting road safety, fair competition and, just as importantly, making operators’ jobs easier.

In my annual report last year, I wrote that the work of operators and commissioners is similar in some respects — we can both run things properly with the right staff and systems. It is only when those systems and procedures go wrong that difficulty arises. If our system goes wrong, it might mean that an operator gets a licence a week late. However, if an operator’s system goes wrong, a wheel may come off the vehicle and someone could be killed.

There is something that I had not appreciated was such an issue here, and that is the use of commercial vehicles for criminal activity. I have been talking to the police in the north-west traffic area about that, and having done a bit of research, I see that there are some big issues regarding the criminal activity that surrounds some specific types of commercial vehicles. A quality operator-licensing scheme — whether own account or hire and reward — would go a significant way to addressing that criminal activity.

Those are the key issues that I wanted to flag up to the Committee. However, I am more interested in debate than formal presentation, and more interested in answering the Committee’s questions and hearing what members think is good and, perhaps more importantly, what is bad about Traffic Commissioners.

Mr Beggs:

Thank you for your presentation and for coming to give us the benefit of your experience. In your written submission, you indicated that you have become increasingly frustrated by the illegitimate haulage industry’s attempts to circumvent your orders and by its continued unsafe and unfair competition. One of the ways in which they do that is to operate from a Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland base. Can you give us more information about the sort of things that have been happening, and what experiences have you had on your patch of vehicles with poor safety standards?

Mrs Bell:

Do you mean with regard to vehicles operated from here?

Mr Beggs:

Yes.

Mrs Bell:

The Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association have already provided statistics for unsafe vehicles in the UK. However, I can tell you that, in the north-west traffic area, when VOSA targets vehicles from Northern Ireland or the Republic, its hit rate for prohibiting vehicles and drivers is substantially higher than for operators based in the north-west.

Heysham docks provide another example on my patch. When operators that are licensed by me attach trailers that have come from Northern Ireland to their tractor units, the chances are that those trailers will be in such poor condition that the operators will immediately incur a prohibition. Consequently, before allowing such trailers to operate on a vehicle that I have licensed, operators in my patch employ mechanics at the docks to submit them to a safety inspection.

Mr Beggs:

Have your efforts to drive up industry standards had an impact on road-safety figures for accidents involving heavy goods vehicles?

Mrs Bell:

It is not for me to justify my existence, but others who work with me tell me that there has been a significant improvement in the state of the fleet and in the culture of compliance by operators, and that is the key.

When I started eight years ago, I was worried because I was the youngest, and the first female, commissioner, and I thought that operators might think that I was just a soppy girl. Therefore, in order to hit the ground running — being reasonable, of course, and, given that I am a lawyer, going through all the necessary legal procedures — I took away a few licences just to show them who was boss so that they would sit up and take notice. I did not revoke licences just for the sake of it, but I did take robust action, because it was important for the operators to be aware that the relevant body — whether a commissioner, a licensing authority or a Government agency — was prepared to take such action.

Moreover, if you look at the report, the statistics for the number of licences that I and my colleagues revoked speak for themselves, and that is what makes the operators sit up and take notice. Operators can be prosecuted by VOSA, or your equivalent, until the cows come home, but that means nothing. However, they can be given a fine of a couple of hundred quid for a defective brake, and I can take the vehicle off the road until the brakes are mended. That is what they listen to.

For me, it is not just about banging a drum; it is about winning operators’ hearts and minds. Generally, they grow to understand that it is not good customer service to say that goods cannot be delivered because an examiner has put a vehicle off the road and that it must remain parked up until its braking system is sorted out. Maintaining a safe and efficient fleet improves operators’ bottom line and enables them to get on the road and do their business.

Mr Beggs:

You said that you have recently been advised that commercial vehicles are sometimes caught up in illegal activity. If an operator has a track record of illegal activity, presumably that is grounds for removing the licence, which, in turn, prevents the abuse of vehicles for such activities.

Mrs Bell:

Absolutely. A couple of years ago, I had a case involving an operator from Liverpool, and I was concerned that his business was a front for illegal drug smuggling and money laundering, and — joy of joys — I saw on television that he got nine years. That is a good example of somebody using his business as a front for illegal activity.

Mr Ford:

I welcome you as well. Your written submission states — and you have just re-emphasised it — that the key to effective regulation is to grant discretion to the regulator. Do you believe that you have greater discretion than a civil servant doing the same role would have, and if so, why?

Mrs Bell:

I am not subject to influence— be it good, bad or indifferent — from a line manager. I am free to make the decisions that I feel are appropriate, subject to the checks and balances that apply when I sit in a quasi-judicial capacity. That is so different from the way in which a civil servant would work. That is why there is a real value in what we do as regulators.

Mr Ford:

How do you liaise with VOSA regarding your almost parallel responsibilities?

Mrs Bell:

We do it all day, every day in many and different ways. I will give some examples. In most cases, VOSA staff deal with the checks and balances of a licence application, such as whether the person has the licence fee, a certificate of professional competence (CPC), and so on. Once the groundwork is complete, I sign off on the case. It might take the civil servants a long time to conduct the admin work, whereas it takes me only a short time to sign off on a case. I have complete trust and faith in what they do. That is the nature of our relationship. I trust them, and they trust me.

I spend a large part of my time dealing with non-compliant operators — the naughty boys. In those cases, the civil servants might have only a small amount of work to do, and I will do the lion’s share. They set out the reasons why an operator is bad and hand the case over to me. I then deal with the case through an inquiry, a hearing or an interview in my office.

Does that answer your question, or do you want some more detail?

Mr Ford:

No, that is a good start, because the next question I was going to ask is what exactly you mean by “public inquiry”.

Mrs Bell:

I am sorry; my apologies. Most of my time is spent in a courtroom-type setting. It is great fun; you must come and watch. I come in, everyone stands up, I go into formal mode, and then they all sit down. I hear evidence from VOSA witnesses about, for example, an incident in which a wheel came off an operator’s vehicle but fortunately nobody was killed. Then I hear from the operator about why it went wrong and, much more importantly, what has been done to put it right. The public inquiry is the mechanism by which I decide what to do with the licence.

If an operator has a licence for 20 vehicles, I must decide whether it should be allowed to continue to operate those vehicles or whether its licence should be reduced to 10 or five vehicles, or whether the vehicles should be taken off the road completely, or whether the drivers should undergo training.

It is not my job to put operators out of business — a common misconception; it is my job to make them comply. I do that in a number of ways. I am not a judge, because I have an interest in the outcome of the proceedings. I want to get operators back on the straight and narrow; I want to make them comply. The sort of orders that I might make day in, day out, are that drivers must be trained to perform daily walk-round checks or that they must be trained in the tachograph regulations. I probably spend around four days a week in public inquiry, hearing from the operators and their solicitors.

Mr Ford:

You said that you do not have power to compel attendance at the inquiry. Nevertheless, you go ahead and make your determination.

Mrs Bell:

The question I ask myself is this: if I do not meet the operators, how can I possibly conclude that their operations are safe and legal to continue? Operating licensing is based on trust. I grant a licence on the basis of promises that are given to me. I must meet the operators to ascertain whether I can trust them. If they are not there, I cannot question them and find out.

Mr Ford:

What staff, as opposed to VOSA staff, do you have to carry out those functions?

Mrs Bell:

There are two types of staff. However, all the staff who work for me are VOSA staff.

Mr Ford:

Are they with you on secondment?

Mrs Bell:

No; I do not know how to describe it, but the Government sort it out and all the staff are from VOSA. There are two groups of staff. The first group is the 50 or so licensing staff based in Leeds, who are very efficient. I work electronically with them, because I am 50 miles away, and they cover the whole of Great Britain. The second group is the 10 staff in my office. It is their job to deal with compliance issues, so they prepare the cases for public inquiry and do other preparation. In many cases, we might send operators warning letters to tell them that we have marked their card, that they are on our system and that we know that they have done something wrong. We then check in a year that everything is in order.

Mr Ford:

Are appeals against your decisions to a court?

Mrs Bell:

There is an appeal process, and appeals are made to the Transport Tribunal. However, that will be replaced by the upper tier, because we are having a shift.

Mr Ford:

What percentage of your decisions are appealed?

Mrs Bell:

Far too many — the percentage of successful appeals is tiny compared to the amount of work that I do. It is in the statistics. From about 180 public inquiries every year, three or four of my decisions are overturned. If I did not want my decisions to be appealed, I would not be so robust — I would just get operators to agree not to be naughty again. However, because I am not afraid to take robust decisions, I do not mind those decisions being appealed. I do get it wrong sometimes — as a woman, I do not mind admitting that.

The Chairperson:

We are all human.

I want to pick up on a couple of points. Who regulates you? If you tell an operator that all of his or her drivers must go on a training course, how do you ensure that that happens?

Mrs Bell:

They provide evidence. I am regulated in two respects. First, as I said to Mr Ford, if I make a mistake in a public inquiry, when I have my judicial hat on, the Transport Tribunal, or the upper tier, will correct me. When the new legislation is passed, I will be appealed on a point of law. Second, as a Traffic Commissioner and a licensing authority, I am accountable to the Secretary of State for Transport, which is the equivalent of being accountable to the Department here. That is why we publish our annual report — it justifies what I do. If the Select Committee or the Secretary of State ask for proof that I am effective as a regulator and that I am doing my job properly, I can give them the annual report.

The Chairperson:

That happens once a year. However, if you want advice on how to pursue a matter, who do you contact?

Mrs Bell:

We have regular dialogue with the Department for Transport and VOSA. We have tripartite meetings on a quarterly basis. Therefore, if I wanted to implement a new initiative that I am piloting in the north-west, I would contact a senior civil servant in the Department for Transport and the chief executive of VOSA to ask their opinion.

I would proceed only if I had their buy-in, because, although I am not a civil servant, I am paid by, and accountable to, Government. Therefore, I must work with them, and follow and inform their policies.

The Chairperson:

So, although you direct your initiatives, they comply with Government policies on matters such as training.

Mrs Bell:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

Will you elaborate on that point? How do you ensure that that happens?

Mrs Bell:

There are two ways. I might, for example, request that driver training be done by a recognised third-party provider, such as FTA or RHA, and I would then simply ask for evidence. Consequently, if FTA sends me certificates to demonstrate that drivers have done the course, then that is fine; it reduces the administrative burden on, and the cost to, the operator.

Similarly, if I have allowed a license to continue, but I have not asked for any undertakings, I would ask VOSA, the enforcement agency, to go back in six to 12 months to check, and I can stipulate whether that inspection should be announced or unannounced. The beauty of operator licensing is the continued relationship between the operator and the enforcement authority.

Mr T Clarke:

I, too, welcome you. I am a little alarmed by your response to a question asked by Mr Beggs. You said that trailers coming from Northern Ireland are more likely to be unsafe. I am one of the Committee members who are against the Bill, because I do not understand how having an operator centre would address those problems. Those have nothing to do with such centres or the Bill, but arise from the process through which trailers must go. If trailers possess an MOT or PSV certificate, how do so many leave Northern Ireland and go to England in an unsafe state?

Mrs Bell:

First, it is not operating that promotes road safety but operator licensing, based on the operator’s repute, financial situation, professional competence and his undertakings. Operating centres are a separate matter; granting a licence makes an operator safe.

VOSA has a brilliant slide — which I now wish that I had brought — to demonstrate the MOT standard, which is the absolute minimum for a vehicle to comply with the construction and use regulations. On the day that a vehicle undergoes its MOT, it has had the bare minimum of maintenance. When an operator carries out regular safety inspections of a vehicle, during which a mechanic crawls all over it to check that everything is OK, its standard of roadworthiness should be much higher.

Consider the following: the standard at which a vehicle should be on the day of its safety inspection is considerably higher than on that of its MOT inspection. Every time the vehicle then goes out on the road to deliver its goods, that standard decreases a little, gradually getting worse until, at the end of six weeks, it reaches MOT standard. At that point, the vehicle undergoes another safety inspection, and the standard goes back up to that which was achieved six weeks previously. If, as you suggest, the vehicle merely achieves the MOT standard and then goes on the road, it starts at the bare minimum standard — only just complying — and therefore, over that time, wheel nuts become loose and the vehicle’s physical condition will deteriorate. Eventually, it will become an unacceptable risk to road safety —

Mr T Clarke:

I do not buy into that —

Mrs Bell:

Please let me finish.

Mr T Clarke:

Allow me to make my point; this is going nowhere.

Mrs Bell:

The vehicle becomes an unacceptable risk to road safety, and that is when collisions happen, and a fatal incident or a serious injury occurs. That is what operator licensing is about. As I said, I wish that I had brought that slide, although I can certainly email it to you.

Mr T Clarke:

Having had a motor background and having worked in that environment, I know that someone crawling under a trailer to conduct a visual check will not achieve that big difference in roadworthiness.

Mrs Bell:

It will.

Mr T Clarke:

I beg to differ. I have worked in the motor industry for —

Mrs Bell:

Where is your evidence?

Mr T Clarke:

Where is your evidence to the contrary? To take that point further: you said that there have been occasions when wheels have fallen off lorries that have already complied with all the other regulations. So where is the evidence that the gap of six weeks has worked? The evidence seems to point to the contrary — the fact that the wheel fell off suggests that it did not work. They have bought into all this —

Mrs Bell:

Sorry, you will have to speak more slowly, Mr Clarke — it is the accent.

The Chairperson:

You will have to clarify that point. We started by talking about how a vehicle from Northern Ireland might be in poor condition compared to the vehicles in GB, which are kept to a higher standard because of the inspection process there. Your point is that those cursory, or more detailed, inspections should, naturally enough, improve road safety.

Mrs Bell:

It “will” improve road safety, not “should”.

The Chairperson:

I said that, naturally enough, it should improve road safety. The way I see it, that almost makes a case for a more frequent MOT or PSV rather than an increased —

Mrs Bell:

They are two different things; one is a test and one is an inspection.

The Chairperson:

I appreciate that. However, my point is that, if there is already a test to ensure that a minimum standard has been met — and officials here would argue that it ensures that slightly more than the minimum has been met — you are taking us in the direction of a more frequent MOT or PSV. We have all put vehicles through MOT and PSV tests and the likes, and we know the scrutiny under which they are placed. The basis of the argument that I am hearing is that we should move to having more frequent MOT or PSV, as opposed to six-week inspections.

Mrs Bell:

But would that not be an unacceptable burden on the industry?

The Chairperson:

Of course it would.

Mr T Clarke:

Sorry, Chairman, a visual inspection will not tell a person whether the trailer is roadworthy — how can a visual inspection determine whether the brakes are up to an adequate standard?

The Chairperson:

Can you clarify that point? I am not expecting you to answer as a mechanic —

Mrs Bell:

Well, thank God for that, because I do not have the mechanic’s detailed knowledge, and I would not profess to — unlike Mr Clarke.

The Chairperson:

Can you talk us through how that approach has worked, based on your own experience?

Mrs Bell:

It has worked because the vehicles are now in a much safer condition than they were previously.

The Chairperson:

I appreciate that — as a result of the inspection.

Mrs Bell:

Yes, they are in a much safer condition as a result of the regular safety inspections and the driver daily walk-round check. As far as I am concerned, the two are the foundation stones of operating licensing. The driver daily walk-round check is a good way of ensuring that a wheel will not come off. The point of the safety inspection is that, for example, the braking system might need some work or parts replaced because of wear and tear. I am interested that a Committee member does not agree that regular safety inspections — which I have always regarded as accepted policy — improve the safety of a vehicle. I am just worried that the rest of the Committee —

Mr T Clarke:

You are making a big difference between —

The Chairperson:

Just a minute, Trevor.

Mr T Clarke:

Chair, let me clarify this —

The Chairperson:

Hold on a minute.

Mr T Clarke:

This point is directed to me.

The Chairperson:

I know the point that you are making, Trevor, because I was about to pick up on it. The point is that there is a difference between the type of inspection that Mrs Bell has just described and the type of inspection that a mechanic would undertake, for example, to check if the brakes are defective. Such an inspection involves taking off the wheels and cylinders, and so on. Is that the sort of the inspection that those people carry out?

Mrs Bell:

Yes. Perhaps Mr Clarke and I are at odds on the difference between the driver daily walk-round check and the regular safety inspection.

The Chairperson:

Yes; could you expand on that point, please?

Mrs Bell:

Let me explain what we expect in Great Britain. Every day, in an attempt to win drivers’ hearts and minds, I ask them “Have you checked your nuts this morning?” They all laugh at me, but it gets the message across. [Laughter.] I am a woman working in man’s world; I have to win their hearts and minds.

The driver daily walk-round check is a vital part of operating licensing, and it involves the driver physically walking around the vehicle. To return to the example that we were talking about earlier, Mr Clarke: the driver will check that the wheel nuts are tight and in the right place, and that the windscreen wipers and lights are working, and so on. We expect that check to be done every day, and, as I say, we ensure that training is provided, and so on.

The other issue I talked about was a proper safety inspection where the vehicle goes into the garage, and the mechanics — the spanner men — look at the vehicle and conduct a full safety inspection. They have a sheet with all the IM numbers, which are the different parts, to ensure that the braking system works, that the tachograph is sealed, and so on, and that inspection is carried out every six weeks. Perhaps we were at cross-purposes. That is what I referred to when I talked about the six-week difference.

The confusion may have arisen when I was talking about the mechanics being employed at the docks. Mechanics can only do so much at the roadside; they cannot possibly do as much as they can with the proper safety inspection over a pit.

There you are: we sorted it.

Mr T Clarke:

I have a follow-on question about the so-called safety inspections. Why do the nuts come loose and the wheels still fall off, if people have been bought into the system on the mainland?

Mrs Bell:

Generally, because the drivers have not done their daily walk round their vehicles to check them, which is why our job is proactive and tries to get them to check their vehicles in the first place.

The Chairperson:

That is the training that you referred to earlier. If an incident were to happen and, as a consequence, it came before you, would that be the sort of instruction that you would ensure goes through the process?

Mrs Bell:

Yes. We could talk for hours about wheel loss, but I do not want to get hung up on that subject.

The Chairperson:

God, no.

Mrs Bell:

It was a bad example. We will use a defective braking system, which is much more likely to happen.

Mr Boylan:

Over here, vehicles go through a test centre and the driver has a PSV certificate that lasts for a year, which is what Mr Clarke referred to. There is a big difference between checking for defective tyres, defective lights, etc, and a proper check. That point has been clarified. Is that the main issue of the commissioner? The vehicle is sound only on the day that it is tested. Do we need a PSV certificate every six months or after so many thousand miles?

Mrs Bell:

It is not for me to say what you should do. In Great Britain, we have an undertaking from the operator that says that the vehicles will be subjected to regular safety inspections at a specified interval. We have a graph, and inspections will depend on the size of the vehicle, the type of journey it does, and the number of miles it travels. A 38-ton articulated lorry trundling up and down the motorway every day may need checking every six weeks, whereas a farmer carrying his goods to market may need checking only four times a year. We tailor inspections to the size and weight of the vehicle and the type of journey.

The Chairperson:

A big issue that has arisen in the evidence gathered so far has been how exemptions have been made for agricultural vehicles and vehicles involved in horticultural activity. What are those exemptions and how do they work?

Mrs Bell:

In Great Britain, we have several exemptions that are related mainly to the use of the vehicle, rather than the type of vehicle: in other words, the type of operation. Those vehicles tend to be used for emergency provisions, such as fire brigades and ambulances. We have a general exemption for agricultural tractors used in certain circumstances. You may, or may not, be aware that the Department for Transport is reviewing exemptions. We have found — and you may have found it here — that once a piece of legislation comes into force, operators try to find a way to circumvent it.

Some agricultural vehicles are being developed in such a way as to fall between two stools, and the use of a fast-track is a good example. A vehicle that we see as a tractor — with big tyres and a farmer driving it — is a fast-track, which is also used as a commercial-goods vehicle.

We have real difficulties with a fast-track vehicle that tows a trailer in which goods for commercial gain are carried. That must be licensed.

The Chairperson:

Therefore, the exemptions should be based on the how the vehicle is used?

Mrs Bell:

The exemptions should be based on use. However, from my experience, care must be taken to ensure that it can be tied up tightly, so that the operators and the lawyers cannot find a loophole to avoid compliance.

Mr Gallagher:

Thank you for your presentation. You described the criminal side of the issue as significant.

It was not clear whether you were implying that vehicles from Northern Ireland are used by gangs involved in criminal activity. If that is the case, will you provide some examples?

My second question deals with the third component, the Republic of Ireland — Britain being the first and Northern Ireland being the second. Are vehicles based there also used by criminal gangs?

Do you co-operate with the regulators in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that vehicles used in the trade are safe when vehicles that are based there come to your attention?

Mrs Bell:

First, the problems that the north west traffic area faces in tackling criminal activity, such as fuel laundering and fuel duty evasion, probably mirror those that you face. For obvious reasons, I cannot deal with specific cases by name; however, the information that we received from the enforcement authorities is similar to that included in the representations from the Freight Transport Association about criminal activity and illegal fuel. That is a big issue in the north west traffic area, especially in the metropolitan areas of Liverpool and Manchester. I can say that because I am from Liverpool. There are big issues surrounding the laundering and trafficking of fuel to the north west traffic area. Given that our licensing regime is based on principles of repute or fitness of own-account operators we are able to take more action. We see that as a big problem; we also see it as a big security issue.

With regard to the Republic of Ireland, the north west traffic area and other traffic areas experience similar problems to you. Although we have the co-operation of the enforcement agency, we are concerned that the regulatory regime is not on a level playing field. Who is the regulator? How does he or she regulate? Does he or she regulate in the same way?

Perhaps this is not as relevant for own-account operators, but my concern as a commissioner is that many operators work in Europe and it is therefore important that the regulators throughout Europe adopt a common approach. That is probably a few years down the line. We have the co-operation of the regulators in the Republic of Ireland; however, we differ in how we regulate.

Mr Boylan:

Obviously operating centres will be affected by own-account operators. Although Northern Ireland comprises large rural areas, I am concerned about the people who operate from home and choose to park their vehicles on the footpath outside their homes in residential areas. Will you provide some examples of how to address the issue of people operating from their homes in residential areas? How did you address the issue of planning for operating centres in the north west traffic area? There will be difficulties there with road safety and such.

The Chairperson:

I will expand on that. Last week, one of the major issues concerned operators who would be defined under the legislation as operating — for want of a better word — from their own homes, for example, self-employed lorry operators parking outside their residential property. There was some concern about the Bill’s definition of an operating centre that could have planning implications for the person so defined. Therefore, we are trying to get a handle on whether, in your experience, there have been planning implications.

Mrs Bell:

First, we do not have to consider the planning position and necessarily be bound by it. We are mutually exclusive, so if I define somewhere as being an operating centre, the planners do not have to accept it as an operating centre. They can do what they like, so we are not necessarily going to dovetail. That is because the tests are, quite rightly, different. Our definition of an operating centre is a place where a vehicle or vehicles are kept when they are not in use. Therefore, the centre is basically a place where vehicles go for a rest. Were I to have brought props today, I would have brought a pair of scales, because we have to balance the competing needs of the operator to go lawfully about its business with the competing needs of residents to the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their properties. That is why I continually talk about discretion. Operators and residents must peacefully co-exist, and, in many cases, they have done so, even though someone is parking his or her commercial vehicle on a road. However, in other cases, they have not peacefully co-existed, and that is where we come in as the licensing authority to try to resolve the issue. It goes back to my regulation with a light touch but not necessarily with a soft touch.

We have those competing needs; furthermore, we have the overarching aspect of road safety, therefore, when we examine an operating centre, we always look at the impact on road safety if a vehicle were parked there. We try to find or designate a safe place for the operator; for example, a truck stop. In rural areas, we allow farms to park a vehicle if there is space, provided that the vehicle can enter and exit in forward gear. In urban areas, we try to find a regional distribution centre, a truck stop, or a lorry park, where vehicles can be kept when they are not in use.

Mr Boylan:

I understand what you are saying, but it still does not explain the matter, because there are complaints here about existing operating centres. For example, what would happen in the north west of England if someone were to operate a truck for 10 years and then buy a house in a residential area and park it on the footpath, as it was the only place that they could operate from?

Mrs Bell:

We would not allow that.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps parking on the footpath would be the issue there, but what would happen if that vehicle were parked in the designated space associated with the dwelling?

Mrs Bell:

If someone were to operate a seven-and-a-half-ton truck, we would look at the parking area and decide whether the operator could enter and exit the space in forward gear.

Mr Boylan:

There is not a chance of that happening in a residential area. I do not see a problem with that, but those people will need planning permission. Are they directed to the nearest industrial estate?

Mrs Bell:

We would have a look at the surrounding areas. I want you to understand why we do that.

We prefer not to do that, to avoid putting an unnecessary burden on operators, especially when — as in Northern Ireland — those own-account operators have been in business for years, during which time they have, perhaps, parked their trucks on a road or a pavement. Other than for environmental reasons, such as ensuring that people are not awoken at 3 am by the noise of reverse-gear buzzers, the only reason that that is specified is because in urban areas the issues appear to involve large operators. An example would be an operator with a 24-hour regional distribution centre next to a row of houses. The issues around several thousand own-account operators are not the same.

Mr Boylan:

Yes — but twin-axle Transit vans that may not fit on a drive in an average residential estate have been discussed.

To return to the rural issue; permission is not generally granted here for businesses in rural areas. The problem is that parking a vehicle may be facilitated, but how is the issue addressed of changing the designation of a garage in order to enable it to be used to store and distribute goods?

Mrs Bell:

We are not bothered about the planning laws. We are simply bothered. I am speaking to two members at the same time —

Mr Boylan:

Yes, but if we do that over here there is a bother for planning.

Mr T Clarke:

I think that may be unfair —

Mrs Bell:

I am sorry, Mr Clarke, your accent is delightful but please speak a little more slowly? [Laughter.]

Mr Weir:

I am from North Down, which sometimes sees itself as being half-way between England and —

Mr T Clarke:

It is unfair in the sense that the Committee is not getting both perspectives. Last week members heard from a planning perspective; today the viewpoint is totally different. Therefore, Mrs Bell, you cannot give the Committee the answer it seeks.

Mr Boylan:

I totally understand that.

Mrs Bell:

I am sorry. I tried.

Mr Clarke:

That is the problem that members will face, Chairperson.

Mrs Bell:

It is an important point.

The Chairperson:

For clarification; the real point made last week was in relation to operating centres, about which Mrs Bell may inform the Committee through her wider experience with local authorities. The nub was whether there was a correlation between the definition of an operating centre and a local authority’s interpretation of an operating centre as an accepted business.

Mrs Bell:

When I said that they were not mutually exclusive, I meant that whatever Traffic Commissioners do does not in any way fetter the discretion of the planning authority. I believe that is how it should be.

The Chairperson:

Absolutely.

Mr T Clarke:

That is what worries members.

Mr Boylan:

That is the problem.

Mrs Bell:

Why is that a problem?

Mr T Clarke:

It is a problem because the Committee accepts and is happy that someone will be granted permission to set up an operator’s centre, but the Planning Service will refuse permission because it deems that same operation a business. Therefore, a small operator in Northern Ireland is burdened with an additional expense.

Mrs Bell:

Do you mean the expense of having to apply for planning permission?

Mr T Clarke:

No — the operator will not be granted planning permission.

The Chairperson:

That is the problem.

Mrs Bell:

I do not know Northern Ireland’s planning laws. However, in the north west traffic area of Great Britain operators need not apply for planning permission. Therefore, I do not know what the situation might be in Northern Ireland.

Mr T Clarke:

That must be clarified.

The Chairperson:

What I am trying to elicit is how you, Mrs Bell, define an operating centre. I want to know whether any local authority, upon designation of an operating centre, decided that that operating centre required planning permission as a business. Has that not happened?

Mrs Bell:

No it has not.

The Chairperson:

That is very good. Thank you for that.

Mrs Bell:

And similarly, if an operating centre has planning permission for commercial use, we must accept it as an operating centre.

May I just do the hearts and minds thing? The overarching issue of road safety is the only reason that there is an environmental aspect to deal with, because the legislation is drafted in a way that strikes a balance between residents and operators, which is right. However, it also deals with that road safety risk. I have a reputation in the north western traffic area for being strict. I do not know why, but it does not bother me, so long as I am known for being fair.

I am haunted by the case of 12-year-old Gerald Byrne. One day, he was walking home from school and bent down to tie his shoelaces. As he did, a 38-ton truck reversed out of a depot and reversed over him; then it drove forward and killed him. That happened nine years ago, and the case is still outstanding. It haunts me, because it was avoidable; there is no way that anybody should have allowed a 38-ton truck to go in and out at that particular location. Perhaps, a 2·2-ton or 3·5-ton van would be permitted to use the location, because they carry a more manageable and acceptable risk.

In our capacity as commissioners, we are asking what size and weight the vehicles are and what areas are required for them to turn. The requirements for a 38-ton truck are entirely different from those for a 3·5-ton truck. The Committee must be aware of that when they scrutinise the Bill: look at the area and consider whether there is a risk. If there is a minimal risk, there is no difficulty, but you will have to look at it again if there is a bigger risk.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for attending this morning’s Committee meeting. It has been a lively and informative exchange, and you have answered a lot of our questions.

Mrs Bell:

Was it helpful?

The Chairperson:

It was helpful, and very good of you.

Mr Boylan:

Have you done your checks?

Mr T Clarke:

[Inaudible.]

Mrs Bell:

I am glad that we clarified that, because it would have been awful if we had been speaking under a misapprehension. Thank you very much.

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