Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 25 September 2008

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

25 September 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 Daithí McKay 
Mr Alastair Ross

Witnesses:
Mr Chris Osborne ) 
Mr Gregg Shannon ) Ulster Farmers’ Union 
Mr Harry Sinclair ) 
Mr Bailey Thompson )

The Chairperson:
The Committee will be briefed by the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) on the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill. Members received an update on the Bill at the meeting on 11 September, when it agreed to invite oral evidence from the UFU and the Horticulture Forum for Northern Ireland. The Committee also agreed to take evidence from the Department’s enforcement and planning officials.

At its meeting on 18 September, members subsequently agreed to invite Beverley Bell, traffic commissioner for the north-west traffic area, to brief the Committee on the Bill.

Today, the Committee will hold its first oral evidence session, when representatives from the UFU will present their views on the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill.

A copy of the Goods Vehicle (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995, and relevant extracts from the Transport Act ( Northern Ireland) 1967, have been added to the master file. It will largely, but not wholly, replicate the Goods Vehicle (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995.

I welcome Mr Harry Sinclair, deputy president of the UFU, Mr Gregg Shannon, chairman of the UFU legislative committee, and Mr Chris Osborne, UFU policy officer.

Mr Osborne has given the Committee one amendment to the UFU’s submission. There has been an omission in its notes, and a line should have been included before the exemption stating that those were the exemptions in place in GB, and not a UFU wish list.

Mr Beggs:
Can the Committee Clerk clarify whether I need to declare an interest each time as my parents run a family farm and may be affected by the proposed change, and they are members of the Ulster Farmers’ Union as well?

The Committee Clerk:
I will get back to the member on that.

The Chairperson:
I welcome the representatives from the Ulster Farmers’ Union.

Mr Harry Sinclair ( Ulster Farmers’ Union):

We have brought along another witness. Bailey Thompson, who is a fruit and vegetable grower from north Down, has come to give a practical view on how the Bill will affect him.

The Chairperson:
The Committee usually gives witnesses a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes to make a presentation — or less if they prefer — and then members will ask questions.

Mr Sinclair:
Thank you for the invitation. Our members have already been introduced, except for Bailey Thompson, who is a practising producer.

Although the UFU acknowledges the importance of road safety, any initiative is only as good as the drivers who operate the vehicles. In many cases, accidents are caused by the operator, and not through any fault with the vehicle. Chris will explain, first of all, why agriculture is treated differently from other industries.

Mr Chris Osborne ( Ulster Farmers’ Union):
As the legislation stands, there is the potential for a lot of agricultural vehicles to get caught up in the legislation — for example, a tractor carrying a trailer. For the purposes of this presentation, they will be described as dual-purpose vehicles and their trailers, which can include 4x4s and Land Rovers. In 2006, 10,586 tractors in classes 40 and 44 were registered, compared to almost 25,000 heavy goods vehicles.

Many everyday farm practices will be caught up in the legislation, for example, bringing input onto a farm, which could include fertiliser, manure, and so on — I will not get involved in the detail of waste — and a farmer taking his livestock from one field to another in a trailer pulled by a Land Rover.

The UFU has forecast that, if the current proposals were implemented, it would create over 15,000 operating centres — essentially, farms where vehicles would be stored. Harry referred to the acknowledgement of road safety. The PSNI’s statistics for 2007-08 show that there were 9,748 road casualties in Northern Ireland and, of that number, less than 1% involved other vehicles, which includes tractors. Northern Ireland transport statistics for 2006-07 show that 21% of roads are urban and 29% are rural.

The Committee will ask why farming should be treated differently to other industries such as haulage. In economic theory, there is the concept of the public good, which is defined as a good that is unrivalled and non-excludable. That public good is provided by farmers. Once that good is consumed, it is immediately replaced, and, for as long as that process is uninterrupted, it will continue. For example, when I will eat a potato, it will be replaced.

By securing that particular line, food supply is secured, and that takes care of local needs and export and trade needs. That is why we believe that we should be treated differently. Although we may not have considered it 10 years ago, there is a real prospect of food shortages, especially compared with the past 35 years.

Mr Bailey Thompson ( Ulster Farmers’ Union):
The existing legislation governs the weight and width of farm vehicles. Currently, that is heavily inspected by the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI), the police, the Department of the Environment and, for fuel, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). If legislation is introduced for agricultural vehicles, how will that affect tachographs? One tractor may have four drivers — is each driver expected to fill in a tachograph every morning and carry that during a day’s work? That is my concern.

Mr Gregg Shannon ( Ulster Farmers’ Union):
A section of the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) is responsible for enforcing legislation that pertains to goods vehicles, buses, taxis, private cars and agricultural vehicles. There is, already, a substantial organisation that — if it does its job properly — covers the safety aspect and ensures that vehicle owners and insurance companies know the regulations. Therefore, the Department’s proposal for the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to undertake that function is unnecessary. That measure will increase costs. What costs can be introduced legitimately? That matter has never been dealt with properly; everybody considers their own costs and assumes that they will continue. The proposal does not consider the increase or decrease in the number of people who need licences, and it does not take cognisance of other people’s involvement and whether they are doing their job.

There is no competition with hauliers. In the past couple of years, we have had substantial discussions with HMRC about red and white diesel. Red diesel is used for agriculture and off-road purposes only, and in certain other cases. That regulation is enforced strictly by HMRC, with the effect that farmers use vehicles on the road for agriculture purposes only. It is clear that that is outside the remit of goods vehicle licensing, and hire and reward.

Furthermore, we are concerned that the proposals, in their current form, would increase bureaucracy and red tape. Although the cost of writing a cheque for £100 for a licence might be insignificant to some operators, the cost of maintaining records — which can be forged — could be expensive. For example, if a fellow just walks around a lorry, and signs off that he has completed its six-weekly inspection, who is to say that he actually did it? The crux of the matter is that, if stopped, the vehicle must be up to standard, and that will not be achieved by someone coming to examine my, Harry’s or anybody else’s records.

This proposal far exceeds the system currently operating in GB. If DOE were asked to report on arrangements in other EU countries, it would be interesting to hear the reply. At a recent meeting, DOE representatives assured me that these proposals are not EU driven. Therefore, why should this country, which must compete on equal terms — perhaps not even equal terms, because of its distance from markets — with all the other food producers, bear extra costs in advance?

If the spot checks required by existing legislation were properly carried out — bearing in mind that that legislation is concerned with public safety and not just operator safety, and the cost of carrying out those spot checks is therefore part of normal Government costs for protecting public safety — it would not be necessary for the farming industry to bear those additional costs, which would be applied inefficiently.

Mr Sinclair:
Transport for hire and reward must be treated differently from transport of necessity and occasional use. Generally, farmers haul their own products; they do not use transport for hire and reward.

Gregg mentioned increased bureaucracy and red tape, which, as everyone knows, involves extra costs. The agriculture industry runs on fine margins, and any additional costs must be passed down the line. The last thing that any politician, or anyone else in society, wants is increased food prices, and the proposals would result in additional costs being passed along the system. That would be the only way to pay for complying with the new legislation, and that is the last thing that the industry wants, which is why we are calling for the exemption of all vehicles involved in agricultural activities.

Mr G Shannon:
It is tremendously important to note that agricultural vehicles are not on the road for 12 months in a year. Silage trailers are used perhaps for three days over a six-month period. Combines are used, at most, for a couple of months in a year. All such vehicles would require exemptions. Why spend time producing those exemptions, when existing exemptions serve the same purpose?

The Chairperson:
We hear what you are saying: as with most things, a bit of common sense is required.

Mr T Clarke:
I welcome the Ulster Farmers’ Union to the Committee. The witnesses have touched on the nub of the matter, although they did not go far enough. The Bill is bureaucracy gone mad. From the start, I have totally disagreed with it.

Harry did not mention a matter that I raised concerning agricultural contractors, and there is an argument that such work should be treated as hire and reward. However, if we look at the casualty and injury statistics related to farm vehicles, it is clear that those injuries do not come about because a vehicle is not parked in a locked yard. The Department is attempting to create something for which there is no justification. There is no reason for it. We have received injury statistics, but those injuries did not happen because a vehicle was parked in the wrong place; they relate to road-traffic injuries. Consequently, I cannot understand how legislation requiring farmers to have a licensed yard would make the roads any safer. As you said in your submission, the MOT test that we have here is good; vehicles must be brought up to the required standard, and they either pass or fail. That goes far enough towards meeting operational safety requirements. This legislation is bureaucracy gone mad, and I support you on that.

Mr G Shannon:
I am glad that someone sees things the same way as we do.

I could talk for hours, if necessary, on recoupment of full costs, because nobody has defined what they are. In fact, in that situation, every Department wants to recoup full costs. Farmers want to recoup full costs for their agricultural produce. However, they do not get them. When they look for that, the first question that they must ask is whether they can effectively reduce the cost of what they do and produce the same result. The Bill, as we see it, does not begin to deal with that issue.

Mr Ford:
I want to ask you about a reference that you made in your earlier remarks. What is the position under the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995 — the equivalent legislation — in Great Britain as it relates to agricultural vehicles?

Mr Osborne:
GB has full exemptions.

Mr G Shannon:
It has four pages of them.

Mr Ford:
At the end of your submission dated 22 September, under the heading ‘Operational Considerations’, you have listed the matters that you believe should be exempted. Does that follow broadly the list of exemptions that are available in GB, apart from the fact that you have listed them on less than half a page, rather than on four pages?

Mr Osborne:
Yes.

Mr Ford:
It seems to me that there are other issues that you have not entirely acknowledged. Your submission is written for the fellow who puts a pallet of manure on the trailer behind his Massey Ferguson 35 and potters two miles along the road from his neighbour’s field to his own land. However, a certain number of such vehicles are used to do similar work to that which is done using lorries. It may be useful to examine exemptions in that area under operational considerations. It will be difficult to find exemptions on a wider basis than that which the Department will accept, because that would create a gaping hole whereby people might sell their lorries and replace them with fast tractors.

Mr Osborne:
Very much so.

Mr G Shannon:
We have already agreed the matter with HMRC. It accepts that people who carry out contract work are on the road more often than the man, of whom you painted a good picture, who tows a pallet of manure. He still carries agricultural produce from one guy’s field to his farm or storage area out of necessity. These days, the size of farms requires farmers to go on the road. However, a tractor is not the type of equipment that would be used for hire or reward in the broad sense, like the 24,000 lorries that move stuff about in Northern Ireland.

Mr T Clarke:
Gregg is saying that fast tractors do not go to the Continent and lorries do not lift silage.

Mr G Shannon:
In fact, fast tractors have been well and truly stamped upon by HMRC; quite rightly, in our view. Put it this way: we are here to argue for our exemptions. There are good economic reasons why they should be made. For a while, everyone was chasing everyone else up and down roads because fast tractors carried everything. HMRC then stopped the use of red diesel. Red diesel was all that made fast tractors economical. When its use was stopped, fast tractors disappeared.

Mr Ford:
That was the further point that you made in your submission when you referred to HMRC policy. Do you and HMRC agree fully on what is red diesel allowable and what is not at this point in time?

Mr G Shannon:
At this point in time, yes.

Mr Osborne:
In our eyes, yes. We relay that to HMRC. On occasion, it approaches us and asks our view on what constitutes —

Mr Ford:
My understanding is — at the risk of mixing metaphors — that there are still a few grey areas between the red and the white.

Mr Osborne:
Yes, but our users are always fully aware of what they are entitled to use.

Mr G Shannon:
The matter is always open for discussion, Mr Ford.

Mr Sinclair:
Generally, those grey areas are on the borderline of agricultural activity. Ultimately, the Ulster Farmers’ Union represents farmers and agricultural activities. If people venture into other activities, they do so at their own risk. We feel that they jeopardise the entire industry.

Mr Ford:
Do you consider the HMRC rules as appropriate guidelines on how the DOE might apply this particular piece of legislation?

Mr G Shannon:
I think that that is putting things slightly back to front. HMRC runs its own show, and it will approach us and tell that a certain vehicle should not have the advantage of using red diesel. As Harry said, if it is not for agricultural activity, we would not support it.

Mr Ford:
The point I am making is that if the Committee advised the Department that agricultural activity should be exempt, it would be easier to use existing rules to determine that exemption.

Mr T Clarke:
It would be easier to throw it out. The Bill is a waste of time.

Mr Ford:
You have lost the principle of the Bill, Trevor.

Mr T Clarke:
The principle of the Bill is road safety, and the Department claims that the Bill will prevent road accidents. No one can convince me that parking vehicles in a secure yard will make roads safer. The whole Bill is a piece of nonsense and should be scrapped as soon as possible.

Mr G Shannon:
We were not surprised to learn that 70% of vehicles that were checked were not up to standard. However, checks had not been conducted prior to that occasion. If checks had been ongoing, that 70% figure would be useless — it is only a spot check. Spot checks should be conducted regularly. After an MOT vehicle test, the standard of the car is not questioned for the next 12 months unless it is involved in an accident. The whole Bill is loose.

Mr Beggs:
Large numbers of hauliers are unfit to be on the road, and the Bill must tighten existing regulations. However, the farming industry does not contribute to many road accidents, and, therefore, the numbers seem disproportionate.

Is a detailed breakdown of those other vehicles available? How many are steamrollers? How many are other vehicles unconnected to the farming industry? A breakdown of the number of agricultural vehicles would be useful.

The Chairperson:
If that breakdown can be provided.

Mr Beggs:
A letter from the Department indicated that the Bill will include powers to exempt certain vehicles and that the regulations will be provided for scrutiny. Has that been provided? Has it already been agreed to exclude —

The Chairperson:
Mr Osborne’s letter outlined that DOE had assured the UFU that, because only enabling powers are involved, exemptions will be dealt with at the subordinate stage and, at that time, the UFU’s views will be considered. Therefore, the process has probably not reached that stage.

Mr Beggs:
I have experience of the rural community. One of my neighbours frequently uses his tractor to cross the road from one part of his farm to the other — that is the extent of his road usage. It would be draconian to create operator licences to enable people to cross the road. Furthermore, given the statistics that have been provided to the Committee, it is unnecessary.

The Department has been talking about tractors; 4x4 vehicles are used infrequently to travel to a market or abattoir, and most farms do not use those vehicles every week. Has the UFU discussed with the Department whether it intends to include 4x4s in the operating-licence criteria?

Mr Osborne:
My understanding is that 4x4s may be included. We have not spoken to the Department — that is based on reading the proposed legislation and, if we do not speak up, those vehicles could be included. The UFU is asking that if 4x4s are being used for agricultural purposes — that is, a dual-purpose vehicle with a trailer — they should be exempt.

The Chairperson:
To give a quick synopsis, is the UFU saying that it would prefer that agricultural activity be exempted in line with GB?

Mr Osborne:
Yes; we could have said that in one sentence.

The Chairperson:
I am just trying to capture the mood of what has been said.

Thank you all very much for your time.

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